Let me state this upfront: Howard Zinn’s book is not an easy read—not because of the complexity of the ideas, not because of the dense, philosophical ideas, but because of the emotional reaction reading it creates.
Zinn sets out to question the canonical history that we have always been told: the founding fathers were god-like, our manifest destiny was a given, and the US has always been right and just in its interactions in the world.
Gore Vidal spoke of the novelist in contrast to the historian. As a writer of historical fiction, Vidal delved into the minds of historical actors. In contrast, historians are immersed in the (supposed) world of objectivity and facts.
Zinn seems to see historians a bit differently than Vidal. Rather than seeing them as engaged in objective fact production, he sees them engaged in ideological interpretation. The historian chooses what to relate, what to distort, what to emphasize, and what to downplay.
History, as we all have heard, is the story of what happened from the winners’ perspective. The disenfranchised, the subjugated do not write history and only appear in history in ways that the winners want to portray them. This led to movements in the sixties and later to study the history of minorities, to focus on women and the disenfranchised, and to cultivate cultural studies.
Sadly, much of this focus on the history of those not in power seemed to be unfathomable to the white majority in the US, or at best was seen as lacking any intrinsic value. But we do well to learn and reflect on the motivations of the historian. Who is writing and why, what are they omitting, what are they depicting as the Other and why?
In the words of Albert Camus, “It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners”, i.e., those in power.
Howard Zinn seeks to view history from the other side. But, he warns, we should not blindly take the side of the victim imparting the moral right to them. It is too easy for victims to become victimizers and vice versa. However, we need to see and explore the voices of the victims, the voices of those typically not heard in society and in our history. What do they have to tell us about others and ourselves?
In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn strips away myth, which is reminiscent of Vidal’s quest to strip bare the assumptions that we have been fed since birth. Mainly, Zinn focuses on the myth of nations pretending to have a common interest—the idea that the US was based a coming together of people with common goals.
Along the way, Zinn reveals other myths about events and people important to the American past. Zinn challenges the reader to see things in new ways and to think, whether it is about the labor movement, minority experiences in the US, or the use of incessant wars in US politics.
Happy reading…and thinking!