I must say, I ain’t sorry to see Howard Zinn go. Few writers can lay claim to have so consistently and thoroughly misrepresented the truth to so broad an audience as this shyster. I was “taught,” or rather, propagandized to, out of his tome A People’s History of the United States, at Chaffey Community College, by a proud communist professor whose class was a shabby airing of every cherished falsehood in the leftist credo. For him, Zinn’s shallow melodrama was the perfect text.
There we learned that the Salem Witch Trials were an episode of class warfare, that the American Revolution was a pretext by which the wealthy fooled the working class into helping them steal wealth from British elites, and that a sinister gang of apparently omniscient capitalist masterminds were responsible for virtually every evil in American life since the landing of Columbus. “These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland,” he tells us on page 1, “who were remarkable...for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.”
This sort of thing is typical of Zinn’s masterpiece of balderdash. He managed to take the vast panorama of American history, and sculpt it into a fairy tale of capitalist domination and exploitation of everything decent, sweet, and innocent. Few factual statements in the book are false outright, but he spins them like a Harlem Globetrotter spins a basketball, careful to leave out anything that doesn't fit snugly into his narrative. The result is a 600 page book with all the intellectual heft of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.” On hundreds, if not thousands, of campuses across the country, it serves its purpose fostering a sense of sophomoric alienation and misinformed outrage among students, and turning them into ignorant cynics about American history and reliable voters for wealth redistribution.
The equal protection of individual liberty and private property is an act of aggression for Zinn, who held that enforcing contracts “put[s] the great power of the government, its laws, courts, sheriffs, police, on the side of the privileged—and...not, as in premodern times, as an exercise of brute force against the weak but as a matter of law.” Of course, anyone not blinded by a collectivist zealotry might note that the privileged don’t really need the government to enforce contracts—it’s the poor who need a state to enforce their contracts against the wealthy, and the weak against the strong. The privileged have other alternatives.
But, of course, for Zinn, every element in American life was part of a vast, inhuman conspiracy to crush humanity, and the better life seems, the more crushing it really is. America has created a “system” that “distribute[s] just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority.” You may say it’s better to be poor in America than anywhere else in the world—that America’s free markets have made it the only nation never to have suffered a famine; indeed, a nation where the leading public health problem is obesity rather than starvation, a nation where 97 percent of poor households have color televisions—but that only proves how insidious the conspiracy is: “There is no system of control with more openings, apertures, leeways, flexibilities, rewards for the chosen, winning tickets in lotteries...that disperses its controls more complexly through the voting system, the work station, the church, the family, the school, the mass media—none more successful in mollifying opposition with reforms, isolating people from one another, creating patriotic loyalty.” Because, of course, America’s poor could never rationally decide that they are better off in America than anywhere else. Every comfort freedom brings their lives is really just an illusion covering an oppression they are too ignorant to feel.
Through Zinn’s looking-glass, Maoist China, site of history’s bloodiest state-sponsored killings, becomes “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control.” The authoritarian Nicaraguan Sandinistas were “welcomed” by their own people, while the opposition Contras, who backed the candidate that triumphed when free elections were finally held, were a “terrorist group” that “seemed to have no popular support inside Nicaragua.” Castro’s Cuba, readers learn, “had no bloody record of suppression....” 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.
A People’s History is not serious history; it is a propaganda device, sold to countless American students on the excuse that there’s no truth anyway, so propaganda’s really okay. And, sadly, it is all too effective. Indeed, it is brilliant in its own way: rarely false outright, but always a step outside the range of the truth. Every year, it helps spit out another cadre of ignorant leftist paranoiacs, convinced they’re the victims of a vast capitalist machine that can only be fought by self-righteous sloganeering and another governnment program for stealing other people’s wealth.
Good riddance to the worst of garbage. The world is a better place without Howard Zinn.