a people’s history of the united states

HOWARD ZINN – 1922 to 2010

“When I was studying in college I found I was being taught basically the same world view [and] the same version of history as I had been taught in school…only with footnotes”.

Because I travel around a bit it is difficult sometimes to get books (or get decent ones) in English. Therefore I am in the habit of downloading audio books and MP3s of lectures and so on. This way I get through a hell of a lot of “reading” and it is in this way thatI have listened and relistened to everything I could get my hands on by Howard zinn, the “radical Historian” died yesterday at the age of 87 .

It was in fact lucky that I covered his work in this way because in the lectures the humour and kindness of the man really showed through even in small things like stopping to praise the little girls who brought him a bottle of water during one lecture.

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.”

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

The term “radical historian” is the one most used to describe Zinn and at first it almost seems to have a slightly oxymoronic quality about it when you first hear it. However, when you read Zinn’s work it seems a perfectly fitting title.

The thing is, I don’t want it to be.

Zinn’s books were full of the kind of information that the majority of history books lack. So often the history we are told is that of the great (sic) men (can I put a ‘sic’ here too?) whose deliberations controlled and shaped the times. WW2 usually being described as a sort of game of chess between Hitler, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt is one example of this disease.

He neatly points out the problem with this kind of history here…

It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the country. The explorers were men, the landholders and merchants men, the political leaders men, the military figures men. The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status.
— Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (1980)

If you read his books they are full of small acts of rebellion that you may not have heard about. All true and all inspirational. These stories manage to provide a kind of history, not where we think about how difficult it must have been for those poor powerful men making their decisions for all of us, but rather where we see the effects those decisions had on the majority of people. And it is of course the majority of the people who lived in the times described  that are excluded from the history books. As he says in his introduction to A People’s History of the United States, “to write history in this way [omitting the vast majority of people] is not a historical necessity but an ideological choice.”

Scholars, who pride themselves on speaking their minds, often engage in a form of self-censorship which is called “realism.” To be “realistic” in dealing with a problem is to work only among the alternatives which the most powerful in society put forth. It is as if we are all confined to a, b, c, or d in the multiple choice test, when we know there is another possible answer. American society, although it has more freedom of expression than most societies in the world, thus sets limits beyond which respectable people are not supposed to think or speak. So far, too much of the debate on Vietnam has observed these limits.

So when Zinn writes about Colombus he emphasises not his “navigational fortitude” or anything of the like but the cruelty to which he deliberately subjected the natives who welcomed him when he arrived in the Americas.

Also, for Zinn but unfortunately not for other historians, these things could not be simply dismissed with a wave of the hand and the catch-all horrible line “you can’t judge the past by the standards of today” (as if the standards of today were so bloody wonderful anyway).

Zinn’s style of historical work should be the norm and not the exception. Far better his way than the fawning tributes to mass-murderers and villains that we are normally expected to read at schools and universities.

Even to the end of his life he was speaking publicly, writing and continuing to say what needed to be said.

I suggest you listen to some of it.