Howard Zinn Makes History

The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy,
by Howard Zinn, Seven Stories Press, New York, ©1997

By Michelle Mairesse




    There are three kinds of histories. Most historians write annals--the names and dates of battles, treaties, leaders, and uprisings. They string their events along familiar strands of received wisdom and publish an updated compendium. Other chroniclers impose grand unifying theories on their annals. In the twentieth century, Arnold Toynbee, with the ghost of Edward Gibbon hovering in the background, tried to explain the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of challenge and response. A few historians--very few--change the way their readers and colleagues think about history. In the twentieth century the two historians who have brought the freshest vision to their fields are Ferdinand Braudel and Howard Zinn. Braudel resurrects a vital Mediterranean civilization of merchants, nobles, pirates, soldiers, peasants, and seamen who disseminate their products, politics, and culture throughout the world. The Mediterranean has already achieved the status of a classic.

   In 1980, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was published. It lifted the dead hand of the past from the eyes of many of his readers, but some of his colleagues were outraged. TheLibrary Journal hailed the work as "a brilliant and moving history of the American people from the point of view of those who have been exploited politically and economically and whose plight had been largely omitted from most histories." A majority of Zinn's predecessors had avoided the question he raised. The question made some of his colleagues uncomfortable, even angry. Here's the question: If American history books have always been written from the standpoint of the victors, does it follow that they should always be so written? Zinn's answer to the question was a resounding No.

   Zinn's history dispenses with the usual hagiographies of the founding fathers. The founders' insistence on the near-sacredness of private property, he demonstrates, had everything to do with their being the richest men in the colonies. Zinn's history forced thinking citizens to reevaluate another idol, Christopher Columbus. What about that statue in the town square? Why are we having a Columbus Day parade, much less a Columbus Day? After all, Columbus officially rationalized looting, raping, murdering, enslaving, and massacring his "Indian" hosts because they resisted Spanish rule and Christianity. His journals though, afire with a passion for gold, treasure, and slaves, tell another story.

   Previous historians who claimed to be objective glossed over these matters. Not Zinn. In his introduction to The Zinn Reader, he says, "There was never, for me as teacher and writer, an obsession with 'objectivity,' which I considered neither possible nor desirable. I understood early that what is represented as 'history' or as 'news' is inevitably a selection out of an infinite amount of information, and that what is selected depends on what the selector thinks is important." Clearly formulated like this, the tenet of objectivity must give way to a tenet of balance when committees meet to approve textbooks, and the voice of minorities and the oppressed, if not heeded, is at least acknowledged.

   Zinn adds, in the introduction, "I was relieved when I decided that keeping one's judgments out of historical narrative was impossible, because I had already determined that I would never do that. I had grown up amidst poverty, had been in a war, had witnessed the ugliness of race hatred, and I was not going to pretend to neutrality."

   The essays in this volume reflect a noble life lived in pursuit of authentic justice. "My first published writings came out of my seven years in the South, teaching at Spelman College, a college for black women in Atlanta, Georgia. I was finishing my Ph.D. in history at Columbia University, with the indispensable help of the GI Bill, after serving as a bombardier with the Eighth Air Force in World War II."

   Zinn fought all the good fights of our era--the integration of Negroes into American life, an end to the Vietnam War, the rights of labor, the limits of civil disobedience, opposition to militarism and government secrecy, and, unceasingly, establishing justice.

   Justice is the theme of "The Spirit Of Rebellion," a column Zinn wrote to celebrate Independence Day (Zinn style , setting off firecrackers under complacent readers). Here's a sample: "The Declaration of Independence became an embarrassment to the Founding Fathers almost immediately. Some of George Washington's soldiers resented the rich in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, profiting from the war. When the Continental Congress in 1781 voted half pay for life to officers of the Revolution and nothing for enlisted men, there was mutiny in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania lines. Washington ordered two young mutineers shot 'as an example.' The shovelfuls of earth covering their bodies also smudged the words of the Declaration, five years old and already ignored, that 'all men are created equal.'

   "Black slaves in Boston took those words seriously, too, and, during the Revolution, petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for their freedom. But the Revolution was not fought for them.

    "It did not seem to be fought for the poor white farmers either, who, after serving in the war, now faced high taxes, and seizure of homes and livestock for nonpayment. In western Massachusetts, they organized, blocking the doors of courthouses to prevent foreclosures. This was Shays' Rebellion. The militia finally routed them, and the Founding Fathers hurried to Philadelphia to write the Constitution, to set up a government where such rebellions could be controlled."

    "Beyond Voting," a column that appeared in the Boston Globe in 1976 and beginning, "Gossip is the opium of the American public," like many of the Globe columns, is as timely today as the day it was written. "So we get high on trivia, and forget that, whether Presidents have been impotent or oversexed, drunk or sober, they have followed the same basic policies. Whether crooks or Boy Scouts, handsome or homely, agile or clumsy, they have taxed the poor, subsidized the rich, wasted the wealth of the nation on guns and bombs, ignored the decay of the cities, and done so little for the children of the ghettos and rural wastelands that these youth had to join the armed forces to survive--until they were sent overseas to die.

    "Harry Truman was blunt and Lyndon Johnson wily, but both sent armies to Asia to defend dictators and massacre the people we claimed to be helping. Eisenhower was dull and Kennedy witty, but both built up huge nuclear armaments at the expense of schools and health care. Nixon was corrupt and Ford straightforward, but both coldly cut benefits for the poor and gave favors to rich corporations.

    "The cult of personlity in America is a powerful drug. It takes the energy of ordinary citizens which, combined, can be a powerful force, and depletes it in the spectator sport of voting. Our most cherished moment of democratic citizenship comes when we leave the house once in four years to choose between two mediocre white Anglo-Saxon males who have been trundled out of political caucuses, million dollar primaries and managed conventions for the rigged multiple choice test we call an election. Presidents come and go. But the FBI is always there, on the job, sometimes catching criminals, sometimes committing crimes itself, always checking on radicals as secret police do all over the world."

    It is a temptation to quote at length from this book because I feel that Zinn's voice should and will prevail over today's cacophony of time-serving editorialists, self-satisfied academics, pompous pundits, and dishonest politicians. In the essay called "The Problem Is Civil Disobedience," Zinn says the law is the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and adds, "But there is another part of law that doesn't get ballyhooed--the legislation that has gone through month after month, year after year, from the beginning of the Republic, which allocates the resources of the country in such a way as to leave some people very rich and other people very poor, and still others scrambling like mad for what little is left. That is the law. If you go to law school you will see this. You can quantify it by counting the big, heavy law books that people carry around with them and see how many law books you count that say 'Constitutional Rights' on them and how many that say 'Property,' 'Contracts,' 'Torts,' 'Corporation Law.' That is what the law is mostly about. The law is the oil depletion allowance--although we don't have Oil Depletion Allowance Day, we don't have essays written on behalf of the oil depletion allowance. So there are parts of the law that are publicized and played up to us--oh, this is the law, the Bill of Rights. And there are other parts of the law that just do their quiet work, and nobody says anything about them."

    The final paragraph of this remarkable essay could serve as a rallying cry for any citizen's group trying to achieve justice for working class people.

    "What we are trying to do, I assume, is really to get back to the principles and aims and spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This spirit is resistance to illegitimate authority and to forces that deprive people of their life and liberty and right to pursue happiness, and therefore under these conditions, it urges the right to alter or abolish their current form of government--and the stress had been on abolish. But to establish the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are going to need to go outside the law, to stop obeying the laws that demand killing or that allocate wealth the way it has been done, or that put people in jail for petty technical offenses and keep other people out of jail for enormous crimes. My hope is that this kind of spirit will take place not just in this country but in other countries because they all need it. People in all countries need the spirit of disobedience to the state, which is not a metaphysical thing but a thing of force and wealth. And we need a kind of declaration of interdependence among people in all countries of the world who are striving for the same thing."

    This book, like A People's History of the United States, should be required reading in all our schools, but since that is not the case, you can put it at the top of your list for graduation presents.