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The Problems with Zinn

[ 163 ] July 10, 2012 |

History News Network has a poll up right now asking readers to vote for the least credible history book in print. I’ve read two of the five: Zinn’s People History and Gavin Menzies’ 1421. The latter is the worst book I’ve ever read. It would be laughable if people didn’t actually cite it as evidence that the Chinese discovered America in 1421. If I read O’Reilly’s book on Abraham Lincoln, maybe that’d compete for the title of worst book I’ve read, but then I don’t think that’s a worthy competition.

Much more problematic is the inclusion of Zinn. It’s clearly a sop to conservative readers and a way to make HNN look nice and centrist. It insults the man to include his book here with such disasters as 1421. Zinn’s book pointed out a lot of truths to a lot of people and helped shape a generation interested in looking at history as something other than politicians and battles, who wanted a history that reflected their lived experiences.

That said, A People’s History is old and out of date. While it might have been revelatory in 1980, its conclusions are pretty ho-hum today. Historians have explored all of the questions Zinn brought up in tremendous detail, and were doing so when he published the book. Yet it still has value because it continues to be the first read for the newly minted young progressive who wants to know some different stories about the past. In fact, those young people may well have heard those stories before, possibly in high school, quite likely in college, but they probably didn’t pay attention in their Intro to US History course.

HNN cites three experts to slight Zinn:

A People’s History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?

–Michael Kazin, professor of history, Georgetown University [from Dissent]

By convincing several generations of Americans that leadership does not matter and that all beneficial change comes from the bottom, it has played a significant role in the destruction of American liberalism.

–David Kaiser, William B. Pratt Chair of Military History, Naval War College

It is a synthesis of the radical and revisionist historiography of the past decade. … Not only does the book read like a scissors and paste-pot job, but even less attractive, so much attention to historians, historiography and historical polemic leaves precious little space for the substance of history

–Michael Kammen, Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus), Cornell University [from the Washington Post]

Kazin and Kammen get to the fundamental problems of Zinn. He really doesn’t deal with the big question of why most Americans accept capitalism, there’s not much nuance, and it does feel thrown together. The additions for later editions are even more slapdash.

Kaiser’s criticism however is completely laughable, but all too typical coming from a certain kind of military historian. Yes, that single radical historian who focused on social movements rather than the military was so powerful that he alone played a major role in the decline of American liberalism! The massive failures of political and military leadership during the Vietnam War clearly had very little to do with it!! The unwillingness of the left to play along with mainstream Democratic politics is clear evidence of Kaiser’s point–just look at the AFL-CIO!

As I’ve said before, Zinn is an OK place to start if you are interested in the past but it’s not a particularly good book and I wouldn’t actually recommend it to anyone. What we really need is a new, beautifully-written synthesis of a progressive American history to update and replace the old standard, something that would avoid Zinn’s Manichean view of the world and deal with the questions he didn’t want to try and answer.

Comments (163)

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  1. Sherm says:

    Will Hunting liked Zinn, and he’s a hell of a lot smarter than any his critics.

  2. Joe says:

    It’s clearly a sop to conservative readers and a way to make HNN look nice and centrist.

    The website says:

    We asked our reader community to send us their nominations for the least credible history books around, and the response was enormous (including an article in the New York Times)! From dozens and dozens of nominees, we’ve taken the top five most submitted.

    “most submitted” sounds like they went by numbers, not as a “sop” to look “centrist.”

    • Wheezy says:

      But that’s a copout on HNN’s part. Every time there’s a call for vote for Best Novel a bunch of goofballs stuff the ballot box for “The Fountainhead” and “Battlefield Earth.” Yet no arbiter (or Internet list-maker) with any knowledge of literature takes those books seriously enough to include them alongside real classics. If HNN has a competent historian on its payroll–and I realize it’s a big if–the person would have seen the difference between Zinn (however problematic his work is) and four outright frauds.

      It doesn’t matter. It’s just HNN. But still.

      • Wheezy says:

        “…should have seen…” Sorry.

      • Charlie Sweatpants says:

        “If HNN has a competent historian on its payroll–and I realize it’s a big if–the person would have seen the difference between Zinn (however problematic his work is) and four outright frauds.

        It doesn’t matter. It’s just HNN. But still.”

        I’ve never had any use for History News Network, and as long as Rick Shenkman is listed as “Publisher & Editor-in-Chief” (http://hnn.us/articles/820.html), I never will. His book “Just How Stupid Are We?” was easily the worst book I read in all of 2008, anti-democratic, hacktacular, poorly edited, and so full of itself that it was painful to read. As far as I’m concerned, that well is poisoned and best avoided. Lumping a real historian like Zinn in with crackpot conspiracy nuts like Barton and Menzies is just another reason to say far away at all times.

        • JoyfulA says:

          When I first got cable in Philadelphia, Temple University had a TV channel, including tapes of lectures by guest historians. They were wonderful!

          When the History Channel was announced, I thought it would be more of the same, 24 hours a day, and instead, it had a lot of old cowboy movies.

          I haven’t watched it since and now don’t watch TV at all. Has the History Channel ever done any actual history?

          • Hogan says:

            I haven’t watched it since their “All day. All night. All Nazis” phase, so I couldn’t say.

            • Bill Murray says:

              well now it’s (and also H2 – the former History International) mostly paranormal prime time

            • joe from Lowell says:

              That was actually their high point. Their military history of World War II was…well, it was actual history.

              Now, we’re lucky if one of the Ice Road Truckers has a Nazi prison tattoo.

            • SamR says:

              Their new slogan is “History- Made Every Day.” They have several shows (Pawn Stars, American Pickers) about finding and/or restoring historical items (especially old war stuff- guns, swords, maps, a fighter ejection seat, etc).

              Pawn Stars is history-ish, in that when the items come in they do talk about the history of it, but then there’s the negotiation and Rick telling the camera that he wants this item, but it needs to be at the right price. And for some portions of it are clearly scripted.

              I like Pawn Stars though, and judging by its ratings so do a lot of folks (it beats network shows in demo).

            • witless chum says:

              This has been explained in graphical form.

          • James E. Powell says:

            I had to laugh when the History Channel wouldn’t air the docudrama, but regularly run shows like Nazis & UFOs, ancient aliens and other crackpot stuff.

      • Joe says:

        It’s sloppy but again it is not just a “sop” etc. … a “sop” would be if they by some sort of affirmative action sort of mechanism picked out a “left leaning” option … they did not. They used a poll which as you note is likely to be skewered.

    • PSP says:

      If one looks at the header at HHN.us, it does say “George Mason University’s History News Network.” How could the fox news version of academia be expected to resist?

  3. John says:

    I don’t care for Zinn even as much as Erik seems to (which is probably not surprising), but the other four are pretty clearly in a whole different league. Menzies and O’Reilly are pure fantasists, while Barton and DiLorenzo’s books are specious polemics that even many of their own co-ideologists find useless. Zinn isn’t good, but he doesn’t deserve comparison with these other clowns.

  4. c u n d gulag says:

    Sorry, I read Zinn’s history and liked it.

    No, he didn’t answer a lot of questions, but who does? Outside of Cato – and he’s writing about one man, not a nation.
    Zinn focused on a few things like genocide, and labor.

    Maybe I need to reread it, but it made a major impression on me. I found it more interesting and informative than Paul Johnson’s jingoistic “History of the American People.”

    My money on the least credible alleged history book ever written, is “Liberal Fascism.”

    But it’ll never be on the list, since everyone who knows anything about history knows that it’s a farce – except the morons who believe Jonah.

    • Avatar José says:

      Howard Zinn was a dyed-in-the-wool commie and everybody knows it from the FBI to both political parties. It’s no big secret. But that’s not what’s interesting.

      What’s interesting is being a commie is just no big deal here at LGM. It seems to be held as a legitimate political position. And the only way it could possibly be no big deal is the communist goals are so close to the goals of those here that they see no threat.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        And Heidegger was a Nazi and Aquinas was a monarchist.

        And the only way it could possibly be no big deal is the communist goals are so close to the goals of those here that they see no threat.

        Wow. I guess that’s just the difference between conservatives and liberals. Tell me, do you abjure the writings of every slave-owning American?

      • Templar says:

        Dude,Zinn was an anarchist or an anarcho-syndicalist. Learn your labels before spouting them.

      • Malaclypse says:

        And the only way it could possibly be no big deal is the communist goals are so close to the goals of those here that they see no threat.

        Needs Moar Juche.

      • Walt says:

        You live only to serve your corporate masters. Why can’t the rest of us understand the freedom that comes from dedicated servitude?

      • Heron says:

        Upton Sinclair was also a communist; does that mean his work exposing the abuse of workers and consumers by corporate citizens of the US should be totally ignored? George Orwell was a committed communist; does that mean Animal Farm, 1984, and his numerous withering denunciations of the Bolsheviks ought to be avoided? In a similar vein, Mozart (along with many other artists of his era)was a huge fan of Napoleon and the French Revolution; do you think his association with that dictator and tyrant -his enthusiasm despite the Terror- renders all of his works politically poisonous as well? Should no one ever listen to symphonies because he considered Napoleon to be the Liberator of Nations?

        I’ve never read Zinn, and I don’t know anything about him. If he was one of that Western Communists who refused to acknowledge the crimes of Lenin and Stalin, who defended and justified and denied their brutality decades after the true depths of Bolshevik bloody-mindedness had become glaringly obvious, then he should certainly be taken to task for that. However, that he held political opinions hostile to capitalism is hardly reason to declare his work anathema.

        • Steve LaBonne says:

          Orwell is hard to pin down- for much of his career he could be described as at least a sympathizer with anarcho-syndicalism- but if there was one group he hated more than Tories, it was Communists. Read Homage to Catalonia, fer chrissakes.

          • Heron says:

            “Socialist” would have likely been a better term to use, but the socialists and communists were practically indistinguishable until the Bolsheviks declared themselves leaders of the Communist International, then later decided to use it to denounce anyone pursuing the United Front strategy with left-leaning capitalist parties against reaction. Anarchist and Syndicalists could trace their intellectual provenance back past Marx to much older traditions of anti-authoritarianism, but during the early 20th Century, pre-Russian Revolution, they were also, more often than not, working hand in hand with the communist/socialist parties.

            In that Orwell reached his political views during and as a result of the fracturing of the anti-Capitalist left created by the Bolshevik attempts to kill off everyone they could get their hands on, it’s fair to insist on a term he himself would have been more comfortable with, but he was still operating within what most political and intellectual historians would consider communist thought. He was a communist; one who, unlike much of leftist Europe, realized that Lenin, Stalin, and the Bolsheviks in Russia and abroad were the monstrous antithesis of socialism, not its vanguard.

      • Cody says:

        What’s interesting is being a commie is just no big deal here at LGM. It seems to be held as a legitimate political position.

        Well, although I wouldn’t support communism I don’t think you can dispute communism fits the bill as politics .

        In the same way, I think becoming slaves to corporations is a bad policy, but plutocracy is a legitimate political position.

  5. orygunian says:

    Re: “it’s not a particularly good book and I wouldn’t actually recommend it to anyone.” So what would you recommend to replace it?

  6. joe from Lowell says:

    Zinn’s book stands up better if you think of it – which he clearly did – as a companion piece to a more traditional history text which attempts to take a comprehensive look at American history.

    No, A People’s History doesn’t provide an objective, measured, or complete description of American history, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only a problem if its readers treat it as something it’s not.

    • scott says:

      Agreed. I think this post kind of misses the point of what Zinn was about, which wasn’t to do some comprehensive, vanilla “From Sea to Shining Sea” survey but to shine a light on the struggles of the forgotten and to talk up examples of mass change in our history. If you’re wedded to an abstractly objective view of matters, maybe that offends you, but I never thought that’s what Zinn was doing.

    • Steve LaBonne says:

      Exactly. Which is why it remains a good book to give to kids as an antidote to the pap dished out to them in school.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        Dismissing everything that isn’t deliberately written to push Howard Zinn’s ideological consciousness as “pap” is lazy.

        • Ed says:

          And to claim that the history being dished out to kids in school is “everything that isn’t deliberately written to push Howard Zinn’s ideological consciousness” is ridiculous. At many schools the ideology behind the history being taught is a lot narrower than that.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            Good thing nobody has claimed that, then.

            • GeoX says:

              Somebody DID claim, inaccurately, that somebody else had claimed that “everything that isn’t deliberately written to push HZ’s ideological consciousness [is] ‘pap,’” however.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                Inaccurately?

                You know we can still read the comments, right?

                • GeoX says:

                  Yes, I do. And the one you responded to said:

                  Which is why it remains a good book to give to kids as an antidote to the pap dished out to them in school.

                  You somehow interpreted this as “dismissing everything that isn’t deliberately written to push Howard Zinn’s ideological consciousness [is] pap.” Hokay.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  Yes, I don’t think it’s appropriate to dismiss everything that isn’t Howard Zinn, to dismiss the entirety of what is being taught in history courses as “pap.”

                  Sue me.

    • wengler says:

      Yeah, this. It’s also a good alternative to the trash history that is vetted by Texan fundamentalists.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        I wouldn’t object to such a presentation of history if it was handled as honestly as A People’s History – as history with a viewpoint, without claims to objectivity. But that’s not what the recent generation of Texas-approved books claim about themselves. They present as selective a view of American history as Zinn’s, but claim to be “fair and balanced.”

        • wengler says:

          School history textbooks make kids hate history. They are written in the voice of God with as little conflict or critical thinking possible.

          Slavery wasn’t good, but the people who kept slaves weren’t bad people. The Civil War was between two patriotic bunches who just had a temporary misunderstanding. Everyone agrees that World War II was fucking awesome, but we are sad about Vietnam and won’t talk about it much because people are still alive that have opinions on it.

          They are stories with no drama, characters with no flaws, some sort of predestinationism of greatness that shows that the country is the best in the world for no reason obviously because the story was always going to happen the same way no matter what decisions you make.

          Kids regurgitate this shit on the test and then forget it and eventually enroll in Glenn Beck University because they honestly don’t know anything. It’d be much better for them to soak up Zinn.

          • Joe says:

            people who kept slaves weren’t bad people

            I don’t know how useful it is to call most people in the country “bad” before the 19th Century, only a few thinking slavery was a “bad” thing.

            • Craigo says:

              The vast majority of southern whites never owned slaves, let alone in the middle or north. (That doesn’t mean that they did not support the system, but that’s a very complex issue.) and in the late 18th and early 19th century there was actually a backlash against slavery, even in the South – emancipations jumped and the free black population skyrocketed several times over following the Revolution. The “positive good” ideology familiar from the Civil War era only began in the early 19th century.

              • Joe says:

                The vast majority of southern whites never owned slaves, let alone in the middle or north. (That doesn’t mean that they did not support the system

                Sure. And, if they did support it, a simplistic account would be they are were “bad” people.

                and in the late 18th and early 19th century there was actually a backlash against slavery

                I’m aware of this & my original comment was too blithe. Still unclear how many thought it was truly “bad” with many like Jefferson thinking the alternative in the ‘short’ run could be worse

                The “positive good” ideology familiar from the Civil War era only began in the early 19th century.

                Again, okay, though it’s hard to say exactly how many before that would say slavery was merely “bad”

                • Anonymous says:

                  “Sure. And, if they did support it, a simplistic account would be they are were “bad” people”

                  that is because the were bad people

                • wengler says:

                  I like to make blog comments short but I will explain further. Slave regimes require the imposition of a terror state as needed to prevent slave uprisings. Conveniently, this breeds an atmosphere of fear and distrust as well as minting a permanent ruling oligarchy.

                  Raping slaves was a right of passage for rich young white men, while the more scientifically minded slave owners instituted breeding programs to get brawnier slaves.

                  Even the lowliest factory worker of the North wasn’t subjected to this horror.

          • tt says:

            You are overgeneralizing. There is a great diversity in the US education system. None of my high school history textbooks were like that.

          • witless chum says:

            Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen held the function for me that Zinn seems to hold for many people. It’s a much better book for that, to my mind, in that it also explains a lot of the practice of history, which gives you a framework to evaluate what historians are telling you, even if you disagree with James Loewen’s ideological conclusions.

    • Bob says:

      I have always found that a weak argument – if you consider the alternative it isn’t so bad. That’s the exact same argument everyone on the right uses to defend Rush Limbaugh – “Limbaugh’s work stands up better if you think of it – which he clearly does – as a companion piece to the more traditional media which tends toward a leftist point-of-view.” And no, I don’t believe we have a liberal press – we have a center-right press compared to which Limbaugh remains an extreme rightist. Just for the sake of argument would it matter one bit if we did have a clearly liberal press? Would that make Limbaugh’s arguments more meaningful, insightful or intelligent? Of course not – he’d still be a know-nothing buffoon.
      And Zinn isn’t transformed from a polemicist to a true historian because other historians in his day advanced a conservative agenda.
      And none of this should be read to mean I think he has any place on the HHN list – he doesn’t.

  7. Will Hunting says:

    You want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book will fucking knock you on your ass.

  8. I’m sure this is already on your radar, but if not, Eric Alterman’s got a new book that might explore some of these questions you mention. Although it looks like a slightly different book then what you envision, it still is probably worth reading.

  9. David Kaib says:

    I have a great deal of respect for history and historians but it seems to me that the question of why people are quiescent is one for sociology (political science too but its mostly poorly equipped to do it).

    • Linnaeus says:

      Historical and sociological approaches can complement one another on this question. It’s not unusual for practitioners from either field to borrow methodological tools from the other field.

      • David Kaib says:

        Absolutely there is overlap and exchange and the boundaries are at least slightly porous. But I don’t think you can say ‘this history is incomplete b/c it failed to address that question.’

  10. Kordo says:

    Having trouble accessing the HNN site (traffic from LGM?),but I’m with Mr. Loomis on Zinn: fascinating perspective, and a useful starting point, but it’s flaws are obvious to anyone who’s read more rigorous works.

    Menzies’ 1421 was crap, but it got me interested in Chinese history of that period, and of the eunuch admiral (who’s name I can’t spell, or remember) who played such a large part. The destruction of his records was a tragedy for anyone who loves history.

    Thankfully,I’ve never read O’Reilly’s book, but I have been subjected to a good deal of Barton, thanks to an extended Southern family. If there is an afterlife, James Madison is gonna beat Barton’s ass when he gets there.

    Mr. Loomis, what book would you recc, for someone interested in a solid history of Progressive movements over the last century or so? I’m no scholar, but I can handle a fairly dense work.

    “What we really need is a new, beautifully-written synthesis of a progressive American history to update and replace the old standard, something that would avoid Zinn’s Manichean view of the world and deal with the questions he didn’t want to try and answer. ”

    Agreed, wholeheartedly. I nominate Eric Loomis, Naomi Klein, and Robert Farley (you guys have lots of free time, right?). Any seconds?

  11. mark f says:

    Liberal Fascism didn’t make the list?

  12. Craigo says:

    What about this ” Citizen’s Historyof the United States” that I see on store shelves and resolutely walk past? Surely it’s a meticulous and even-handed critique of Zinn.

  13. Linnaeus says:

    What we really need is a new, beautifully-written synthesis of a progressive American history to update and replace the old standard, something that would avoid Zinn’s Manichean view of the world and deal with the questions he didn’t want to try and answer.

    Hm. Guess that can be my new project once I’ve finished this dissertation.

  14. Pathman25 says:

    The thing about Zinn’s book is that none of that stuff is taught in history classes. What you get is the sanitized hagiography version of US history. Fuck that.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      When did you last take a history class?

      • Craigo says:

        Yeah, they don’t exactly teach this in grade school, and not the better high schools. But Zinn’s work isn’t new to anyone who paid attention to a college-level American history course.

        I’m suspicious of the need for a “progressive” telling of history. Reality has a liberal bias; we should be demanding that history be objective and well researched, and if possible, well written. Insisting that it tell us what we want to hear seems to miss the point.

      • Pathman25 says:

        When did you? My children aren’t being taught any of the stuff in Zinn’s book. I gave them a copy of it.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          When did you?

          Almost 20 years ago, to give you a sense of how far behind the times your critique is. “A People’s History of the United States” was an assigned text in the freshman Intro class.

          My children aren’t being taught any of the stuffin Zinn’s book.

          I highly doubt that. More likely, the elements of Zinn’s books which were rare in history classes in 1980, but which are ubiquitous, now have become so common and unremarkable as to not merit any notice.

          • Steve LaBonne says:

            Sorry, maybe in Mass. but elsewhere (eg. Ohio where I live) no. And I speak as a parent with a daughter in college, so my knowledge of what she was was and wasn’t taught- even in AP US history- is recent. She devoured Zinn’s book and certainly didn’t think it duplicated much of what she was taught in school.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              Much of, eh?

              It isn’t meant to duplicate “much of” what one learns in a history class.

              Nor should the contents of Zinn’s book constitute “much of” what is presented in such a class.

              • Steve LaBonne says:

                I love the way, when you’re caught in a clearly bullshit statement, you just dig in with even more, sometimes barely interpretable bullshit. Have you looked up the definition of “profit” yet, ace?

                We get it. You don’t like Zinn. Bully for you.

                • Pathman25 says:

                  +1

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  sometimes barely interpretable bullshit.

                  The dumbest people on the internet are those who come across something they don’t understand, and conclude that the writer must be really stupid.

                  Ace.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                Oh, go fuck yourself. If you can’t answer the point, drop the little pissy act and just say nothing.

                We get it. You don’t like Zinn.

                WTF are you babbling about? I’m the one who wrote this, you twit.

                Have you looked up the definition of “profit” yet, ace?

                I’m the one who posted, and linked to, the definition of “profit.” Ace. I can only imagine what you’ve decided to think happened on that thread.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  Which, as was pointed out about 100x to you, was not the correct economic meaning of “profit” to which everyone but you knew the discussion in question was referring.

                  But keep it up, you’re cute when you really get wound up. Stupid, but cute.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  Since you’ve already been shown to have a distorted memory of the discussion, perhaps you should avoid holding forth on how it went.

                  Which, as was pointed out about 100x to you, was not the correct economic meaning of “profit”

                  Yes, the definition of “profit” isn’t “profit.” I do seem to recall you putting a great deal of emotion and time into making that point – only after you were confronted with the definition, that is.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  But keep it up, you’re cute when you really get wound up. Stupid, but cute.

                  You don’t even realize the irony here, do you?

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  You thought- and clearly stated you thought- that working for a nonprofit organization = not being paid. That’s unusually moronic even by your standards. And that you’re still trying to wriggle out of it is beyond pathetic. But as I said, feel free to keep making a fool of yourself. It’s fun to watch.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  You thought- and clearly stated you thought- that working for a nonprofit organization = not being paid.

                  Oh, is that sort of like when I didn’t look up the definition of “profit?”

                  You have a very active imagination.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  But as I said, feel free to keep making a fool of yourself. It’s fun to watch.

                  Forced. Very forced.

            • Dana says:

              This seems to me the only way Zinn’s book is really an effective foil, as criticism of the “summary view” students get in their survey/AP/intro to American history textbooks, and to a lesser extent (I hope, nowadays) in the lectures they get in those classes. This is almost necessarily a function of the purpose of those classes, which are meant as an overview for the uninitiated or as prologue for the serious history student. Pretty much any college history class above is intro level looks closely at the issues Zinn raises, and some classes and many books are devoted entirely to topics Zinn argued were left out of history education.

              Although I’m not old enough to remember when Zinn’s book was published, my guess is most of the negative reaction to it was rooted in this same view, that it was old news. For serious historians, there was nothing revelatory in it. Maybe if it had been published 10 years earlier, before the spread of the so-called new social history, it would have been better received.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                Or if not explicitly as criticism, then as an expansion, pursuing a theme that, like any specific theme, just can’t be pursued to any significant depth in a general course.

                You don’t have to view the “mainstream” presentation of history as useless or destructive to see the value of writers like Zinn. They provide a sort of binocular vision.

              • Hogan says:

                For serious historians, there was nothing revelatory in it.

                But serious historians were not the book’s intended audience.

                • Dana says:

                  Maybe? What I remember of Zinn (and it’s been at least 10 years since I read it) is the sort of accusatory tone directed at historians for what he viewed as ignoring or excising the history of regular people. And since many historians had written or were then writing entire books about the episodes he accused them of ignoring, I can see where some historians would be reciprocally dismissive of his work. His critique was a generation out of date but nevertheless cloaked in a grating righteous indignation that seemed to impugn his contemporaries.

          • Pathman25 says:

            How the fuck would you know what my children are being taught? Are you psychic? You just seem like a contrarian prick so just get over yourself.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              Calm yourself, little girl.

              Jesus, who pissed in the People’s Collective Bowl of Cheerios?

              • cackalacka says:

                From the looks of it, you look like you’re the one with the belt unbuckled, joe.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  I can’t speak to what How the fuck would you know what my children are being taught? Are you psychic? You just seem like a contrarian prick so just get over yourself. “looks like” to you.

                  To most people, objecting to such an outburst would “look like” a natural response.

                  YMMV.

                • firefall says:

                  as always

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  As always, there are those who are horrified at the incivility I demonstrate by objecting to being cursed at. As always, to express disapproval of such things only highlights my degeneracy.

                  I should really learn my place.

                • gmack says:

                  I hate sticking my nose in this stuff (or maybe I don’t, since I do it more often than I should), but from where I sit I do not at all understand the vitriol against JfL on this one. He’s explicitly praised Zinn, and his only point is that what gets discussed in “mainstream” high school accounts in American history is not necessarily all useless and destructive. This seem like a perfectly reasonable point to me. I agree with many of the criticisms here about high school history text books and how history is taught (as does JfL, I would imagine), but I’m not yet prepared to move from this critique to a blanket dismissal of “mainstream” history teaching as useless (though I’m sure some is).

                  I suppose I’ll add that my thinking here is probably influenced by the fact that I was blessed with an excellent history teacher–a former football coach, as it happens (I had crappy history teachers too, but I’ll accentuate the positive). I still occasionally re-read my notes on his lectures on the 19th century notions of the Protestant work ethic and social Darwinism (he told me he loved giving those lectures, since he got to pretend to be a preacher). So the story people tell about how Zinn raises issues that are never covered in high school always rang a bit hollow for me. I should not generalize from my own case, however.

              • GeoX says:

                “Little girl?” That’s…huh.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  …not really all that difficult a reference for most people to get?

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  Difficult to see that you engaged in grade-school misogyny? No, not difficult at all. Somewhat difficult, though, to understand why a supposed liberal would engage in it.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  You just spent the last hour and fifteen minutes trying and failing to find where I “clearly stated you thought- that working for a nonprofit organization = not being paid,” and now that couldn’t, you’ve decided to go around drawing little mustaches wherever you can beneath my comments.

                  Seriously, this is what you’re going to spend your afternoon doing? Not just “on the internet” – going on the internet so you can drop pointless little insults on me?

                  Maybe you should call it a day.

                • Hogan says:

                  …not really all that difficult a reference for most people to get?

                  Got past me, for what that’s worth.

              • Anonymous says:

                Why is called somebody on the interwebs a “little girl” such a riot to you, dude?

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  Did you hit the wrong reply button?

                  I’m not the one who started a “riot” over the term. I consider it an innocuous throwaway line, and am surprised at what a terribly big deal it seems to be.

                  In case you did hit the right reply button: Why do you?

                • Anonymous says:

                  Are you unfamiliar with colloquial English? If not, why don’t you understand are you deliberately ignoring the meaning of the word “riot” as I used it?

                  Anyway, answer the question. You’re not quoting anything that’s obviously canonical, as you implied. So why are you calling folk “little girl[s]” as if doing so wins an argument, rather than makes you look like a foolish old fogey with backward ideas?

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  I’m not ignoring it; I’m pointing out that you’re using it incorrectly. Once again, I don’t consider the term to be a “riot” at all. I consider it barely worth noticing, much less laughing uproariously at.

                  Anyway, answer the question.

                  I did. Twice now. You just don’t like the answer. Oh, well.

                  Maybe you should ask a less stupid question.

                • Anonymous says:

                  You haven’t answered anything. You asked a defensive rhetorical question cum non-sequitur as a way to evade accounting for your dumb, angry misogyny because as a self-professed liberal there’s no other way to explain it away. Accusing your interlocutor of being stupid, in a boring and roundabout fashion, hardly answers anything. Again, why are calling people “little girl[s]” as if that’s a legitimate pejorative? What is that such a riot to you?

                  I’m not using the colloquial “riot” incorrectly, dude. I can’t believe how comfortable you are about lying in public.

                • Anonymous says:

                  Check your OED, asshole. I’m assuming you–as a white boy–have got it close at hand.

                  Petty quibbling over a dictionary definition, and you’re still wrong and acting like a disingenuous twerp. Bravo.

          • redwoods says:

            Ha, ha, you don’t have kids! The textbooks the teachers work from are depressing to read, in either elementary-or middle-school. It’s been 13 years since I took a high school history course, but my teacher was dismissive of the assigned text and “supplemented” with a different textbook (this was an AP course), and from relatives I understand things haven’t gotten any better in that regard. NO elements of Zinn’s work have found their way into current textbooks, mainly because textbooks are written to appeal to the main markets, which are Texas and California, which buy as an entire unit, not seperate school districts. They’re a mass-produced product, written as blandly as possible to appeal to the widest distribution.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              Not only do I have kids, but I spent most of the last three years teaching in a public school system.

              As you point out, texts aren’t teachers, or courses.

              I largely agree with you about the texts. The Texas-ication of nationally-used text books is a problem.

              • Steve LaBonne says:

                I guess magically knowing everything about what every teacher is actually teaching must be something like Sarah Palin’s ability to read “all” of the magazines and newspapers.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  You just spent the last hour and fifteen minutes trying and failing to find where I “clearly stated you thought- that working for a nonprofit organization = not being paid,” and now that couldn’t, you’ve decided to go around drawing little mustaches wherever you can beneath my comments.

                  Maybe you should call it a day.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  And you just wasted more words trying and failing to distract attention from yet another idiotic thing you said. Where do you get off lecturing people about what their kids were taught- something about which you have zero knowledge- let alone doing so in a childishly insulting manner? I don’t think you’re fit to be in a classroom, frankly. I wouldn’t want my kid in yours.

                  Your inability to 1) tolerate any kind of disagreement from anyone a millimeter to the left of you and 2) ever admit to a mistake, is pathological. I admit that I enjoy winding you up, because the resulting spectacle is so entertaining. So don’t let me discourage you from continuing to spout garbage.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  Why don’t you just stop?

                  When you’re shown to be wrong about something (several things in a row, but anyway), why not just STFU, instead of casting about for yet another excuse to yell at me?

                  (BTW, this is exactly why it’s a bad idea to strike a “I’m staying cool, you’ve really lost it” pose when you are so plainly red in the face. You’re just not going to be able to maintain it).

                • The Lorax says:

                  Hey, it’s Yglesias’ old comment section. Sweet.

                • Sidis says:

                  joe knows something about everything. He is that fucking smart. In different circumstances, joe would have made a real impact.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  But the meaning of the word “profit” is one of the things he apparently still doesn’t know.

                  Dr. Dick: “Profit has no place in the healthcare system, at any point.”

                  JFL: “So we should pay doctors with chickens?”
                  http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2012/03/you-are-the-sucker-forgetting-bush-v-gore-exists-edition/comment-page-1#comment-245997

                  From the same thread: “Then it’s a good thing that I never said “profit” was “a salary higher than the national median,” but rather, “highly paid.”” Sorry, nope.

  15. Warren Terra says:

    How is it that Bellesiles didn’t make the list? Fraudulent history, a bete noir of the Right – you’d think he’d be perfect.

  16. partisan says:

    (1) In search of alternatives to Zin, what about Eric Foner’s “The story of American Freedom”?

    (2) About David Kaiser: his problem is a little more complex. He’s not a conventional military historian. He co-wrote a book in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, and “American Tragedy” is a critique of the Vietnam War, though it puts JFK in a relatively good light, which is where his book ends. He wrote a very caustic review of Mark Moyar’s “Triumph Forsaken” for SHAFR passport.

    The bee in his bonnet, which can be found in his blog where he writes weekly posts called “History Unfolding,” is a belief in generational history. I’m not sure the book he uses, it’s by Strauss, Neil perhaps?, but if you read the blog enough you will encounter it. Very simply, the dynamics of American history can be explained by the generations who confronted American problems. For examples there’s the generation that faced the Depression and WW2, there’s the “silent” generation of people born between Carter and Clinton. And then there are the boomers whose hedonism and moral dogamtism have segued all too neatly into today’s Republican extremism.

    As such, Kaiser is as critical of Obama as anyone at this blog. But there are some obvious problems with his perspective. For a start most boomers didn’t actually go to university, let alone indulge in the hippie antinomianism or whatever damning moment in the history of the SDS that supposedly marked a generation. Also, there is no clear generational divide in the Republican party. Another problem is that, as a diplomatic historian, he is bitter about that field’s relative decline over the past few decades. He is angry towards social history, but he doesn’t seem to know that much about it.

    • scott says:

      I’ll defer to you on Kaiser, whom I honestly don’t know, but I confess a lack of patience with the generational hobbyhorse that Strauss et al. think is The Explanation for our sociopolitical devlopment. I think you point out how simplistic all that can be, and I just wanted to cheer you on, because I think this kind of monocausal appraoch to history gives it a bad name.

      • Linnaeus says:

        Strauss and Howe are interesting reading and it’s not impossible to incorporate generational approaches into serious historical scholarship, but after reading their work, I come away thinking, among other things, that they’re cherry-picking.

  17. cackalacka says:

    Interesting. 4 books that were published in the last decade, 1 a generation ago (Zinn.)

    One has to question the premise of whether a book is less credible if it is being compared with materials 30 years its junior.

  18. wengler says:

    I’m pretty sure we had this exact same discussion about Zinn on a Farley post some time back.

    All I gotta say is acting like an academic historian, with all the hedging and and ‘well it could have happened this way, but…’ does not work well in popular histories. People who are interested are looking for what they don’t know and the perspectives in ‘A People’s History’ are entirely new to a lot of people that read it. And that is why it is a valuable contribution.

    • Malaclypse says:

      I’m pretty sure we had this exact same discussion about Zinn on a Farley post some time back.

      I thought so as well, but this has no comments. Perhaps they were lost in the Great JS-KIT foul-up?

      However, SEK elsewhere recounted this:

      I told him how significant A People’s History had been to my political and intellectual development and that I had read it four or five times and that I was about to start it again when he stopped me short:

      “My little book has served its purpose,” he told me. “Perhaps it’s time you started on the bibliography.”

  19. rea says:

    My recollection of Zinn, ahving read it a decade or two ago:

    (1)It contained nothing surprising to me. I’m not a professionally trained historian, but I’ve read a lot, so maybe I’m a bad test case.

    (2) It seemed rather shallow–but of course, it’s a one volume history of the United States, so maybe shallow is inevitable.

    (3) It’s mistakenly one-sided. Sure, there is a lot of class warfare and genocide in American history, but that’s not the whole of it-the stuff about freedom, and equality, and democracy isn’t all cynical bullshit.

    • DocAmazing says:

      And it still fulfills its primary function well, anmely to overcome the gaps in high-school US history texts. It’s really not meant to be read on its own. If you wand cheering about freedom, equality and democracy, I assure you that stuff’s not missing from the assigned texts.

      • rea says:

        I don’t want cheerleading about it–I just want some recognition that the motives of historical actors weren’t always entirely cynical.

        • DocAmazing says:

          Amply available outside Zinn. Students have plenty of access–no, they’re required to read–the non-Zinn texts.

          • Craigo says:

            The pointt is that one shouldn’t need to go outside Zinn, who’s guilty of the same ideological slanting and selectivity which this thread is decrying.

            It’s a good book, but it’s bad history. He’s telling a story, in which the masses are always virtuous and true, and the elites are cruel and grasping. It’s a well written fairy tale that bears little resemblance to the extraordinary complex social history of America.

            Zinn sees history as the Romans did – not as an objective search for truth, but the subjective promotion of politics. That doesn’t mean that one should stop reading Livy or Zinn, but you have to remember that their work is more reflective of themselves and their ideals than reality.

          • rea says:

            “I’m going to lie to you, to balance all the lies told by the other side” is not my idea of sound historical writing. YMMV.

            • jefft452 says:

              “I’m going to lie to you, to balance all the lies told by the other side”

              If you read only “Plagues and Peoples” you would think that every event in history had a specific disease behind it, but prior to the 30’s the impact of, say, small pox on the political, military, and cultural ability of the Native Americans ability to resist the Europeans was completely ignored

              So I would say that overstating your case CAN be an honest counter balance, but I never read Zinn, so I defer to those who have, if he is lying, or just a change in emphasis

            • DocAmazing says:

              Lying? No. I have yet to find a lie in Zinn; if you’ve found on, please share. his book ismeant as a counterbalance (like the later Lies My Teacher Taught Me, whose auther i cannot recall). Much like the histoical work of native American writers like N. Scott Momaday.

              We’ve all gotten plenty of jingo propaganda in out lives, andthe process continues. Writing a book to balance that propaganda was an undertaking worth the time. Of course, if you prefer your propaganda without challenge, that’s your bit.

              • DocAmazing says:

                Okay, so my spelling is suffering.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                Of course, if you prefer your propaganda without challenge, that’s your bit.

                I prefer my propaganda to be “challenged” by the truth, not opposing propaganda. I don’t want to have the myth of the Noble South confounded by a myth of, say, Union purity. Even as I recognize that there is no completely objective voice, and appreciate the value of different viewpoints, I still insist on the centrality of fairness and honesty as an ideal that writers and thinkers should take seriously.

                Zinn is least effective at his goal – reaching people who aren’t already devoted to a Marxist analysis of American history – when he is the most heavy-handed in his propaganda. He is most effective when he provides truth that deflates others’ propaganda.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  Given how few challenges were in circulation and being given anything like a fair hearing at the time of publication of A People’s History, I’d say that any challenge was a good one. Remember, you were overcoming a huge amount of John Wayne bullshit at that time. (Still are, in some places.)

  20. willmcjunkin (@willmcjunkin) says:

    To your point about the need for a “beautifully written synthesis” of a left history, I’m tempted to reply that the kind of history we need might just go beyond the bounds of traditional historiography altogether. Recall what Friedrich Engels once said of Balzac’s novels:

    I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together“.

    What we may need is a revolution in our imaginative aesthetic capabilities in a different sense, an ability to read the shards and fragments of history in the different places they’re archived: cinema, song, popular language, architecture, criminology, whatever.

  21. Hank says:

    I’ve found the Crash Course history programs on youtube to be vastly more relevant than HNN content.

  22. jefft452 says:

    “1421″ is a history book?
    I had always thought it was a “what-if” novel, and figured I would read it one day

    It’s really ment to be taken as fact? I’m disappointed

  23. tomk says:

    “What we really need is a new, beautifully-written synthesis of a progressive American history to update and replace the old standard, something that would avoid Zinn’s Manichean view of the world and deal with the questions he didn’t want to try and answer.”

    Please Erik, you are the one to do it, I’ll borrow it from the library and read it.

  24. stjust says:

    Yet while it is helpful in bringing to light facts written out of standard textbooks, Zinn’s work can only serve as a beginning to understanding US history. There is an unmistakable anachronistic, even a-historical, thread in A People’s History. If it has a theme, it is an endless duel between “resistance” and “control,” two of Zinn’s preferred words. Populating his historical stage are, on the one side, a virtually unbroken line of “Establishment” villains who exercise this control and, on the other, benighted groups who often struck out against their plight. The names and dates change; the story does not.
    Complexity and contradiction does not rest comfortably in such a schema. The limitations of this approach are most evident in Zinn’s treatment of the American Revolution and the US Civil War, which he presents as instances of the elite beguiling the population in order to strengthen its control.
    This deeply subjective rendering of the two most progressive events in US history calls to mind Frederick Engels’ comments on “old materialist” philosophy, an approach that could not answer the question of what historical forces lay behind the motives of individuals and groups in history, the “historical forces which transform themselves into these motives in the brains of the actors.”
    “The old materialism never put this question to itself,” Engels responds. “Its conception of history, in so far as it has one at all, is therefore essentially pragmatic; it divides men who act in history into noble and ignoble and then finds that as a rule the noble are defrauded and the ignoble are victorious.” Such, in short, was Howard Zinn’s operating thesis.
    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/feb2010/zinn-f15.shtml

  25. [...] certainly have my critique of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a good history book, but it’s power and importance can’t be denied. And that’s why Mitch Daniels [...]

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