And you thought the History Channel was going to stick to documentaries about UFOs, Bigfoot, the Hellfire Club. Well…
Tonight the History Channel will be airing the documentary The People Speak starring Matt Damon and Josh Brolin. The film is based on probably the worst history book you’ll ever read, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The book, which I personally purchased and tried to read some years ago when I was a committed leftist graduate student in history, is pure drek and even back when I was looking for ideological purity and Marxist political guidance, I couldn’t take it seriously.
But, I guess for Hollywood types like Matt Damon-who grew up next door to Zinn in Boston-and Brolin and the rest of the celebutards that have been employed to pitch this drivel, it is considered high scholarship. Unfortunately, A People’s History is one of the best-selling histories of all time and is still taught in high schools and colleges across the country, despite its lack of footnotes and other scholarly apparatus.
To read A People’s History is an act of masochism, for Zinn casts American history in the worst and most cliched Marxist light imaginable. (And did I mention it has very little source material-I did. Just wanted to make that clear.) The book claims to present American history “through the eyes of workers, American Indians, slaves, women, blacks and populists” and Zinn has made no apologies for the overtly left-wing agenda in the book. In the 1995 edition of A People’s History he wrote:
I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle. I wanted to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history. So that kind of attitude towards history, history itself as a political act, has always informed my writing and my teaching.
Ok. But that doesn’t make Zinn a historian. In fact, proclaiming to have an overtly political agenda before doing your research should pretty much destroy your credibility as a serious historian and mark your work as a poltical manifesto, not history. Not having sources for your screed should also undermine the notion that your work is “history.” (OK, we’ve been there already. Just making sure you’re awake.)
Oh. I see, Zinn is not a historian, but professor of Political Science.
(Excuse me while I vomit!)
Perhaps it is worth mentioning, as it is the purpose of this blog, that The People’s History was not taken seriously as a definitive work of history about the United States and was lambasted when it first came out in a critical review by Oscar Handlin, the Harvard historian. As the New Criterion explained in a 2008 article, Howard Zinn’s Fairy Tale, Handlin’s criticism should have been enough. A People’s History’s flaws were pointed out [by Handlin] with devastating precision. Handlin’s brief is-or should have been-fatal. Writing in the The American Scholar in 1980, he noted:
It simply is not true that “what Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortez did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.” It simply is not true that the farmers of the Chesapeake colonies in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries avidly desired the importation of black slaves, or that the gap between rich and poor widened in the eighteenth-century colonies. Zinn gulps down as literally true the proven hoax of Polly Baker and the improbable Plough Jogger, and he repeats uncritically the old charge that President Lincoln altered his views to suit his audience. The Geneva assembly of 1954 did not agree on elections in a unified Vietnam; that was simply the hope expressed by the British chairman when the parties concerned could not agree. The United States did not back Batista in 1959; it had ended aid to Cuba and washed its hands of him well before then. “Tet” was not evidence of the unpopularity of the Saigon government, but a resounding rejection of the northern invaders.
Oh sure, you say. Handlin was a typical bourgeois historian and besides there is no objectivity anyway, so why is his work better than Zinn’s ? Decide for yourself. In Handlin’s book The Distortion of America (1996) he discusses at length the distortions of history engaged in by Marxist intellectuals and their sympathizers until the fall of the Soviets in 90s:
The dismal record of falsification-sometimes naive, sometimes sinister- reached back to the 1920s. Although honest radical visitors like Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman perceived the repressive nature of the Soviet regime, other Americans launched blindly into a long, tortuous, course of self-deception, eagerly gulping down the fatuous account of the New Soviet civilization by Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1936)… The illusion about the benign Soviets survived after the war’s end and also after the appeasement that began at Yalta and called for the sacrifice of Eastern Europe. Cheerfully in 1971 the officers of the National Education Association concluded a two-week visit by blithely announcing that the Soviet Union had eliminated poverty within its borders.
The hapless sympathizers who ruled the media and the academic and entertainment worlds were not all stupid and ill-informed, but deliberately blinded themselves to the reality…Drawing upon a long tradition of intellectual anti-Americanism, fashionable journalists and academics from Madison Avenue to Hollywood and Ivy League Universities, who had learned to sneer at the Main Street “booboisie” slipped readily into the habit of denouncing their country’s greed, intolerance, racism, and general backwardness that would shortly lead to the total collapse of capitalism. Their distorted vision obscured what actually transpired both within the United States and in the world outside its borders. The tragic outcome-myopia about the Red threats to peace and freedom everywhere, along with failure to understand the underlying strength of the United States and its relevance to the world’s future.
(And he forgot to mention ignorance and/or complicity in the “Red Genocide” of almost 200 million people.)
Do you think Zinn figures into this lot? Yeah. I think so too.
And the people who admire Zinn’s work and A People’s History are part and parcel of the same Left that Handlin so skewers in his The Distortion of America. They are now engaged in a furious attempt to recapture political power and cultural prestige so that they can go on insulating themselves from the utter historical fact that socialism, their God, has failed. This is why there is so much pressure for radical social change and global governance schemes today. Any faith, when its light is about to be extinguished from the world, creates a vacuum amongst its true believers. It would be foolish to underestimate the lengths to which these people will go to hold onto their absurdities.
The best we can do here is quote Captain Kirk from the original Star Trek episode The Apple:
Native Man: But it was Val who put the fruit on the trees; caused the rain to fall. Val, cared for us.
Kirk: You’ll learn to care for yourself! And there’s no trick to putting fruit on trees; you might even enjoy it. You’ll learn to build for yourselves, think for yourselves, work for yourselves-and what you create is yours! That’s what we call freedom.
(the relevant dialogue begins at 7:11)