Zinn Hunting

by Carol Iannone

I just saw an adoring documentary on the life of Howard Zinn that was made in 2004, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, narrated by his adoring acolyte, Matt Damon. It is a one-sided presentation of Howard Zinn’s negative and one-sided view of America, as purveyed in his wildly popular A People’s History of the United States. Zinn is a man who cannot give a shred of credit to any opposing viewpoints about the nature of the United States, and neither does the documentary, even when evidence glares and flickers on the screen.

For example, after he came home from the war, Zinn went to graduate school at night and worked in a warehouse during the day; his wife had a job in publishing. She worked so that he could complete his degree, a typical academic arrangement of those days. They lived with their two children in low-income housing on the Lower East Side. Of this period of his life, Zinn speaks torturously of the struggle for economic survival in the so-called working class. But the fact that they had jobs, that they lived at below market rates in what was no doubt a large airy apartment with fully equipped kitchen and bath (leaving aside later problems with housing projects, they were meant to be a great improvement over the tenements in which Zinn grew up and of which he loudly complains), the fact that photos of his pretty wife and nicely dressed children speak of something beyond pure struggle and survival, this he cannot bring himself to mention. He also cannot bring himself to mention the G.I. Bill that enabled him to study and become a college professor. The documentary was partially funded by the NEH and the NEA. Zinn says in the documentary that traditional historians have left things out, but he is a far worse offender on that score. 

Then I looked at Good Will Hunting, written by and starring Matt Damon and his friend Ben Affleck, which also makes favorable mention of Zinn’s People’s History. This is pure self-indulgent adolescent resentment and fantasy. Damon portrays a mathematical genius who, because of abuse as a child, is hostile, belligerent, and physically violent, confining himself to a cramped existence in a dingy room and doing janitorial work for a living. It is very unlikely that a mathematical genius would be physically violent; it is very unlikely that his Einstein-level of genius (he brings a Field’s Medal winner to his knees), as well as assorted other sterling abilities, would not have been noticed before his twenties; and it is very unlikely that such a genius would resist opportunities to use his powers. But the whole thing is to play out the Zinn-like idea that society neglects the finest and rewards the undeserving. Of course in the end he gets everything, including splendid advancement and a rich English girlfriend, but once again, the society that offers him so much opportunity gets no credit.