With Howard Zinn, contemporary American academia found its court historian. Zinn, who died January 27 at 87, was like a gigantic echo chamber, accurately reproducing — and actively reinforcing — every left-wing cliché with which the academy has abetted its sense of election these past several decades. “You see how smart he is,” saith the tribe, “he thinks exactly as we do.” Zinn’s biography tells us that he was the author of “more than 20 books.” But only one matters: A People’s History of the United States. Published in 1980 with appropriately modest expectations — it had, I read somewhere, an initial print run of only 5,000 copies — the book went on to sell some 2 million and is still going strong. Its Amazon sales rank as of February 1, 2010, was 7. Seven. That’s a number most authors would climb over broken bottles to achieve 30 days after their books were published. Here it is 30 years on.
How to explain such phenomenal success? The publisher had doubtless assayed the book’s intellectual merits and proceeded accordingly. Left out of account was the presumption of its political message. The extremity and consistency of that message — that America is and always has been an evil, exploitative country — guaranteed its success among the tenured radicals to whom we have entrusted the education of our children. More to the point, this history “from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated” nudged out all other contenders for the prize of becoming the preferred catechism in American — that is to say, anti-American — history. A People’s History is the textbook of choice in high schools and colleges across the country. No other account of our past comes even close in influence or ubiquity. No other, more responsible, telling of the American story had a chance. How could it? Given a choice between a book that portrayed America honestly — as an extraordinary success story — and a book that portrayed the history of America as a litany of depredations and failures, which do you suppose your average graduate of a teachers college, your average member of the National Education Association, would choose? To ask the question is to answer it. What this means is that most American students are battened on a story of their country in which Blame America First is a cardinal principle. No element of our heritage, from the derring-do of Christopher Columbus to the valor of the U.S. military in World War II, escapes the perverting alchemy of Howard Zinn’s exercise in deflationary revision.
To his credit — well, it’s not really to his credit, since he offers the admission only to disarm criticism, but Zinn is entirely candid about the ideological nature of his opus. All history, he says, involves a choice of perspectives. Maybe so. Are we therefore to assume all perspectives are equally valuable? Zinn employs this relativist’s sleight of hand in order to promulgate his preferred species of intolerance, which appeals to latitudinarian sensitivities only because it is an intolerance fabricated in opposition to the established order. If “all history is ideological” (it isn’t really), then why not make your choice based on what appeals to your political sympathies, truth be damned? That’s the takeaway of Zinn’s admission, and it’s all he offers to explain his decision, which he details at the beginning of his book, to tell the story of
the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish–American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by the black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.
In other words, what Zinn offers us is not a corrective, but a distortion. It is as if someone said to you, “Would you like to see Versailles?” and then took you on a tour of a broken shed on the outskirts of the palace grounds. “You see, pretty shabby, isn’t it?”