Why I Don’t Like Howard Zinn

I can’t go into every instance of Zinn’s dishonesty because life is way too short. But here is one that I constantly run across.

I teach a lot about the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas, and for me it’s easier to teach students who know nothing at all than the ones who are educated in the Howard-Zinnish model. They are convinced that the indigenous were completely peaceful little tribes that were profoundly feminist and gay friendly. They didn’t even know what violence, rape, or disliking anybody who is different from you was! Then evil Europeans came, and that’s the first time the noble little savages discovered violence and intolerance.

Yeah, I know. That’s my reaction, too.

Of course, this goes all the way back to Rousseau who, in turn, learned this way of narrating history from the Spaniard Las Casas. Rousseau and Las Casas weren’t historians, though. They were trying to achieve political and ideological goals, and history, to them, was simply a story you can modify at will. You can’t teach the fairy-tales of “the noble savage” as history. Unfortunately, nobody informed Zinn about it.

The result is that young people are convinced that the Americas were a paradise where noble savages lived in the state of pristine and sinless humanity until evil Europeans snaked their way in and brought the sins of violence, inequality, cruelty, and domination into this paradise. I swear, this is what is being taught in schools. Things were wonderful, and then Europeans came and made everything horrible.

For the longest time, I kept wondering, where are they getting this from? Then I read Zinn, and it’s all there. Everything is narrated in this good guys vs bad guys vein that appeals to small children and undeveloped, primitive minds.

This is your explanation for why the mobs today deface the Cervantes statue and want to destroy our statue of St Louis. Cervantes, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Junípero Serra, St Louis – they all represent the snake in paradise. In this story of good versus evil, they are the European evil that spoiled the original paradise of the Americas. If you really believe this version of history – and why wouldn’t you if that’s the only thing you are taught? – I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to destroy these statues.

So yes, what is taught matters. And most parents don’t have the time, the energy, or the knowledge to re-teach the school material at home. Nor should anybody expect them to.

And by the way, it’s getting worse. In the years I’ve been a teacher in the US, it’s gotten worse. Students only perk up when they hear the familiar stories of how everything Western or American is evil. It’s getting very hard to get them to listen to anything else.

21 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like Howard Zinn”

    1. He’s absolutely part of that. Maddeningly, he’s one of those people who minimize serfdom as “not really slavery” and “not remotely as bad as slavery.” I’m from Ukraine, so it’s kind of a big deal.

      I sincerely don’t understand why it’s so hard to be completely against slavery, consider it an undoubted evil yet also to recognize that is existed historically pretty much everywhere and wasn’t an invention of a single particularly evil group of people.

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      1. one of those people who minimize serfdom as “not really slavery”

        To make a long story as short as possible, it’s because, for Marx (and neo-Marxists like Zinn), feudalism and capitalism have different “relations of production.” Serfs were able to use feudal social relations to emancipate themselves gradually and thereby help create the pre-conditions for capitalist property relations. Slaves, on the other hand, were emancipated from above because slavery was not compatible with capitalist productive relations.

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      2. // he’s one of those people who minimize serfdom as “not really slavery”

        Reading a few Turgenev’s short stories in childhood was sufficient to see what serfdom was. Wonder whether Zinn read any Russian literature from that period. For not Russian speakers, “Mumu” is probably the most famous story and is worth reading, yet I remember the author’s other stories describing even worse realities.

        // yet also to recognize that is existed historically pretty much everywhere

        Specially since the justifications of American slavery heavily relied on this fact, citing the Hebrew Bible and other sources.

        Well, had Zinn acknowledged this, white Americans would be presented as less special and we cannot afford that; see no other explanation.

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        1. If people are bought and sold, tortured and cut into pieces with impunity, families are separated – what’s that if not slavery?

          American exceptionalism truly gets my goat sometimes. Oooh, we are the only ones who experienced this! No, you are not. Get over yourselves already.

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  1. Don’t have anything to add since it’s the first time I heard about Zinn, but want to say that this one and the previous post are one of the things I love most about your blog – letting one experience the joy of intellectual discovery, even if one doesn’t always proceed to read books mentioned here.

    A post about Trump may gather more comments since readers find latest events easier to comment on, yet …

    In short, really love such posts and hope they’ll continue and you’ll share a new great author you discover like you did with Bauman and others writers on neoliberalism, nationalism and etc. 🙂

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  2. Next step in weirdness:

    Family Guy Voice Actor Of “Cleveland Brown” Quits Because He’s White!

    Family Guy voice actor Mike Henry has stepped down from his role of voicing the black character “Cleveland Brown” after over 20 years. What’s the reasoning behind Henry’s decision? He says that “persons of color” should voice “characters of color” and since he’s white, he is incompatible with the job. His decision comes after a flurry of similar decisions from other cartoon voice actors.
    https://anthonyblogan.com/family-guy-voice-actor-of-cleveland-brown-quits-because-hes-white/

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  3. Then evil Europeans came, and that’s the first time the noble little savages discovered violence and intolerance.

    The latest wokest variation on this is “No one had the concepts of male and female until they were introduced by Europeans”. I’ve seen that one floating around twitter for a year or so.

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    1. // The latest wokest variation on this is “No one had the concepts of male and female until they were introduced by Europeans”.

      That’s very inventive even for ‘woke’ ideas. Pity they don’t seem to clarify which groups are included in “no one.” Arabs with mandated veiling? Ancient Hebrews? African tribes which sent women to menstruation huts?

      Checked how to write the latter phrase and discovered the practice is still alive and, surprisingly for me, very dangerous for women’s health:

      // Nearly eight out of 10 girls in a region of mid-Western Nepal sleep in dangerous outdoor “menstruation huts” during their period, despite the practice being outlawed … The illegal custom, known as “Chhaupadi,” stems from a centuries-old Hindu taboo that considers women and girls as unclean during menstruation. … The practice was criminalized in 2018 after a string of high-profile deaths.

      https://edition.cnn.com/2019/12/10/health/nepal-menstruation-hut-study-intl-hnk-scli/index.html

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  4. Why I Don’t Like Howard Zinn
    Zinn is very open about his ideological aims. You would have to be an naif not to pick up on that. Unless I’m missing something, there are very few places where Zinn is presented as “the textbook.” Loewen’s book’s bent is right there in the title.

    What’s less obvious is how textbooks written by committees are like that — at least when I was a kid.

    Of course, reading critically is a skill few people even develop in the most rudimentary fashion. (For example, the number of educated people who cannot distinguish between an editorial and a news article; an investigative report and a press release, on and on.)

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    1. there are very few places where Zinn is presented as the textbook

      Do you meant the only text? That might be right, but still there’s no denying that his crude Marxist perspective, if not dominant, has been mainstreamed into respectability.

      “For many students, A People’s History will be the first full-length history book they read, and for some, it will be the only one.”

      https://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/december/wineburg-historiography-zinn-122012.html

      I also note that on US Amazon’s listings Zinn’s People’s History is today ranked #1 in Democracy (Books) #5 in Historical Study (Books) and #1 in U.S. Civil War History and #107 on the Best Sellers List.

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  5. I don’t think that particular narrative is what makes the students difficult to teach all on its own- after all, it’s one of many, and doesn’t get all things wrong.

    What’s at issue, I would gather, is the additional metanarrative device that frames any disagreement with the narrative as its confirmation – if you provide confirmation, the narrative is right, if you offer alternative explanations, you’re the problem and everything you say can be disregarded, and the narrative is right.

    That particular trap isn’t unique to a Zinn story, I don’t think.

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  6. There is a really special, beautiful book that I found sometime in the mid-1990s, browsing library shelves. It put to lie the idea of the wonderful peaceful “primitives” or “native Americans” (if you wish to capriciously truncate the historical timeline) . It is “A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya” by David Freidel and Linda Schele. 1992. A transliteration(?, I think that is what it would be called) of Mayan glyphs into an actual history of the various Mayan city-states. They were anything but peaceful – they were as bloody a killer culture as the worst of British imperialism, and well illustrated for good measure. Little left to the imagination.

    No more of this European=bad, others=good. Doesn’t wash. Not at all. I know some people have been writing that this current “cultural Marxism” was really dangerous, but I didn’t comprehend the magnitude of it before events of the recent few months.

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    1. “as bloody a killer culture as the worst of British imperialism”

      Not sure I would single out the British for this honour. Although their Empire was the world’s largest by far, it could be argued that in most times and places British rule was relatively benign when compared to their European competitors or Japan.

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  7. Respectfully, may I ask why you think that there is any kind of logical and/or rational connection between what these “protestors” are saying and what they are doing, or that you present evidence of a connection.

    I’m saying this because much of my world is in politics, where many members of the public logically and/or rationally assume this or that – which is delusional and/or hallucinatory in reality, btw – followed by a discussion of the delusion/hallucination.

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  8. “the indigenous were completely peaceful little tribes that were profoundly feminist and gay friendly…. Then evil Europeans came”
    It’s possible to profoundly admire and be fascinated by indigenous cultures (as I do and am) and realize that that take is donkey shit…. and that it profoundly dehumanizes indigenous peoples.

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