Howard Zinn is one of my least favorite public intellectuals – one of those guys, like Noam Chomsky, whose entire philosophy seems to boil down to “America bad.” I was never keen to read his book, A People’s History of the United States, but I got a copy at a used book sale, out of masochism, I guess.
Zinn professes to present the history you don’t get in schoolbooks. But it’s not a “history of the United States.” It’s mainly a history of societal division in the United States: black against white, Indian against white, poor against rich, workers against owners, women against men. And, of course, “imperialism.”
Most is presented in a straightforward manner, but Zinn does make his own feelings very evident. Of course that’s his right; and many of the outrages he denounces were, indeed, outrages. But what he denounces, in the main, were people pursuing their self-interest and personal advantage at the expense of others. This Zinn seems to find inexplicably shocking: for example, that 19th century mill owners would deny workers generous wages, when they could get away with paying stingy wages. The book becomes kind of tedious in nattering on and on about “the privileges of a wealthy elite,” etc.
Zinn’s overall attitude is evident in the way he discusses the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Zinn seems to feel those men really ought to have abolished slavery, given votes to blacks and women and the propertyless, and maybe even to have established an egalitarian socialist utopia where no one would be allowed to exploit economic advantages. That this wasn’t done Zinn considers more or less criminal.
Our entire history, indeed, he considers more or less criminal, for which we should seemingly feel stained with guilt down to the hundredth generation.
But it’s just silly for Zinn to write as though all society’s ills should have, or could have, been cured if only people had acted in self-denying ways he would approve. It takes struggle, and Zinn’s book is much about chronicling (indeed, glorifying) that struggle; but what is bizarrely missing is any sense of the results achieved. In Zinn’s mirror, America and its “system” now are just as rotten as ever. A Martian reading the book would infer that, despite all the struggle, no progress has occurred since colonial times. Where Zinn does acknowledge some seeming progress, he always immediately dismisses its significance. For example, he cannot avoid noting that women got the vote in 1920; but says it meant little because their votes reflected the same thinking as did men’s votes!
I take away from all this a completely different lesson: America today is an incomparably better country than when it started (and it started incomparably better than any other – a perspective also absent from Zinn’s book). It is a country where people have indeed struggled to improve their own situation, and society; and a country wherein such struggles can succeed, and have succeeded, gloriously. That is the one big lesson of American history.