Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Remembering Howard Zinn

In teaching American history to university students who've taken classes here at Central Dallas Ministries, I've always used Howard Zinn's classic A People's History of the United States as one of my textbooks.

Zinn told the story of the United States from the "underside."

He wrote from the grass up, rather than from the top down, as is typical of most texts available to students and teachers.

To be sure, reading Zinn challenges many of our traditional assumptions and popular myths.

Howard Zinn died last week.

He will be missed. His footprints will continue to guide those seeking truth, justice and unity as a people.


Chris said...

Well, in case everyone is not familiar with this man and his textbook, it is a Marxist book that describes America as a predatory and repressive capitalist state, sexist, racist, imperialist, that is run by the corporate ruling class for the benefit for the rich.

He thinks that the founding of the American Republic was an exercise in tyrannical control of the many by the few for greed and profit.

He thinks that the Declaration of Independence was not so much a revolutionary statement of rights as a cynical means of manipulating popular groups into overthrowing the King to benefit the rich.

In his history, greed is the explanation for virtually every major historical event.

According to Zinn, it was America and not Japan to blame for Pearl Harbor. The fight against fascism, he says, was a manipulated illusion to conceal America's real goals, which was empire and money.

To the end of his life, Zinn continued to sympathize with America's enemies, just as he supported the Soviet Union in the cold war.

In a tract published after 9/11, he called "Terrorism and War", he protrayed the US as a terrorist state and Islamic Jihadists as people valiantly standing up to American empire.

Concerning Obama, he said that he "became president at a very special time, when the American capitalist system is falling apart, and good, I'm glad it's falling apart!"

Larry, forgive me for thinking you're a Marxist. I hope I am wrong.

c hand said...

Reading Zinn to learn the history of the US is like reading Mein Kampf to learn about the Jews.

Zinn's hash of history reads like a 9/11 truthers acount of events. Zinn was not an America critic(there are plenty of those), he was an America hater.

Daniel said...

The two most unflinching, most partisan ideologues have offered their gospel. The word of the Lord... thanks be to God.

Anonymous said...

To the commenters:
This is really pretty simple. In the old days of the Soviet Union, if you wrote against the official version, you were put away in a prison camp. And America was proud of our freedom of speech -- we were "better than" the Soviet Union.

So Howard Zinn writes things you do not approve of, and you call him an America hater. Maybe you would have liked to lock him away. Maybe you prefer the Soviet system, silencing all voices that do not agree with the official line.

Here is what Zinn once wrote:
“There’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete,” Professor Zinn said. “My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times.”

I think he offered much.

Larry James said...

I have no idea your sources, Chris. I've read and used Zinn only as a history text. None of what you say is found in the book I've used. What is there is an honest, professional, scholarly attempt to understand the other side of the story--a side that always exists, but is often left out. It is a great text. I wish you would read it and then reflect.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone counter Zinn's conclusions in People's History by showing his facts to be wrong? If not, then you'll have to conclude that he tells a true story that you simply don't want to hear.

So Larry's advice stands: read the book.

Jeff W

c hand said...

In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Professor Zinn acknowledged that he was not trying to write an objective history, or a complete one.

“There’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete,” Professor Zinn said. “My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times.”

Indeed, the best that one can say about A People’s History of the United States is that it may be many things, but it is not history. It is not even a revisionist history, since what it sets out to revise is, at best, a figment of Zinn’s imagination. Needless to say, this is not really a thesis. It is not even really an idea. It is a sentiment, an unfalsifiable article of faith

"honest, professional, scholarly"???? - Not even Zinn made these pretentions. Real history books have footnotes and sources.

Yes, Zinn saw the US as a force for evil in this world, do you?

Chris said...

Last December the History Channel had a documentary, "The People Speak" based on his capitalism bashing history book. It is a self-proclaimed "biased account" of American history that rails against white oppressiors, the free market and the military.

In conjunction with the documentary, Zinn and Company launched a nationwide education project. The project was a collaboration between two "social justice" activist groups, Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

Rethinking Schools recently boasted of killing a Social Studies textbook in the Milwaukee school system because it "failed to teach social responsibility." A Rethinking Schools guide on the 9/11 jihadi attacks instructs teachers to "nuture student empathy for our enemies and dissuade students from identifying as Americans.

"It's our job to reach beyond chauvinism." And a Rethinking Schools guide to early childhood education written by Ann Pelo disparages "a too heavy focus on academic skills" in favor of "social justice and ecological teaching" for preschoolers.

I would never allow my child to be exposed to the teaching of this man.

For further information, all one has to do is google his name.

Daniel said...

c hand, I don't see how you connected any of that from Zinn's quote. Just because something doesn't fit the dominant narrative doesn't mean it never happened.

Are you suggesting that the things Zinn writes about never actually happened?

Cody said...

I haven't read Zinn, and I'm not really inclined to take Chris' word for it but...

"describes America as a predatory and repressive capitalist state, sexist, racist, imperialist, that is run by the corporate ruling class for the benefit for the rich."

Can anyone produce serious arguments to the contrary?

c hand said...

Daniel - Ok, America is imperfect, certain blemishes are real. Does that prove the error of the American experiment? Is the US a historical mistake and a force for evil in the world? - Zinn's position.

Who should have won WWII? the Japanese? Was the US indistinguishable from Nazi Germany? Should US prevail against Islamic terrorist today? - Zinn was anti-america at every turn.

TwoCents said...

Chris, c hand,

Please provide references to Zinn's published work. Without such cites I am highly inclined to acept Larry's word on this since he appears to be the only one commenting who has actually read Zinn's work.

TwoCents said...

Check out:


Based on this neutral website, Larry's description seems accurate - Zinn had a different take on things, but hardly as "off the rails" as Chris makes out. For instance, he argues against virtually all aerial bombing (having been a US bomber pilot in WWII) due to the high civilian casualties, and notes that the US has dropped more bombs (by tonnage) than any other country. Seems like fair comment/criticism to me.

Chris said...


Howard Zinn Discover the networks

c hand said...

Zinn is easily accessed online. Much of it is like Ward Churchill's assesment that the "little eichmans" in the world trade center were justly incinerated on 9/11. How to disprove?

Daniel said...

Once again, Chris tells people to google a random phrase that leads to some random website, which provides a single source in the face of overwhelming evidence, all supported by a guy with too much time on his hands, a bitterly partisan view of the world, and a penchant for conspiracy theories. Oh, and the website is heavily drowned in Glenn Beck love.

Thanks, but no thanks, Chris. I will also trust a guy who's actually read the material in question, rather than someone who refuses to read the material and would rather cite a random third-party who probably hasn't read the material anyway, but promotes hate-speech because he's insecure about his political beliefs.

TwoCents said...

Thank you for sharing your source, Chris. Any mildly objective reader should indeed check it out. It is nothing but partisan rant. I'll take Wikipedia over such nonsense any day. As I said, I'll also take Larry's description since he's actually read the guy.

Speaking of sources, you should really cite yours more often. You quote wholesale blobs of this c@%p and don't even say where it comes from. Or ... an original thought every so often would be nice.

Chris said...

Many links to Howard Zinn's name is preceded by the word "Marxist."

BTW Larry, I have never know of you praising one of our founding fathers such as Washington, Jefferson, Adams, etc. But I would say that 90% of the people you single out to write about have some links either to Marxism, Communism or extremely left-wing. Our Founding Fathers gave us a country that half the world would break their necks to come in. How about a little appreciation? I would like to know why you are so left wing, I'm sure you didn't learn it at Harding.

TwoCents said...

c hand:

If it is so "easily accessed online" why have you provided no cites to sources that quote Zinn's actual published works?

TwoCents said...



TwoCents said...


I can say "Marxist Chris"? (There, now people will find your name linked to Marxism when they Google!) Does that make it so.

Daniel said...

Chris, have you misunderstood a fundamental concept of the internet? Just because you put two things in a search box, and results appear, does not mean they are actually related concepts. And telling people search terms to google does not equate to citing sources.

I wish I could have told professors in grad school random facts and told them to look them up themselves... actually, I don't wish that -- it's simply a sloppy, lazy form of argument when you make something up and tell other people to prove you wrong.

Anonymous said...

C hand, you simply don't know what history is. Most critics of Zinn that I've seen (even real historians) don't know either. They think that history is a recitation of facts. Such a stance privileges the Received Explanation. Zinn didn't like that privilege, and I don't either, because I am a Christian.

Zinn confesses in the first chapter of People's History that he has bias --- it just doesn't happen to be the bias held by the dominant voices who wrote our histories before him.

Until you get clear that you have a bias, you will attack all those who don't share it.

Jeff W

Larry James said...

Many comments here reflect no understanding of the academic study of history or of the continuing debates among professional historians that produce the historiography of any particular era or subject. Zinn, considered a serious historian by almost all in the field, produced his interpretations, all that any historian can do.

Chris, I love Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Roger Williams, Franklin Roosevelt and countless others in the sacred halls of our nation's past. I'm not sure many people really understand Jefferson or Lincoln. Jefferson was no Evangelical--a deist, he argued for the rights of men up to a point. Your black and white world is an impossible place in which to live and it does not leave any space for conversation, or honest disagreement. I find that very sad. BTW--Jefferson would be apalled by the practices of some Christians who seek to impose their faith on others via the political/democratic system we are blessed to enjoy.

Anonymous said...

just once i would like to come to Larry's blog and read something positive about our country instead of continual bashing and hating - and by the same cast of characters no less. It seems to me there are alot of people who comment on this blog about how horrible our country is and what an abysmal group of people we are and always have been. Based on my readings of the comments on this blog site - usually by the same people - i need to be on the far left in order to be accepted here. I am a long time reader of this site, a long time follower of Larry's career and teachings, and past supporter of CDM, but over the course of the last year, the comments on this blog have reached a tipping point ( for me) of anti-america. there is so much complaining, bashing, and hating of our country that your message just can't be heard. I am sure this is simply a reflection of the animosity and disgust the liberal leaning people have for the more conservative people in this country. Any opposing or different opinion is met with the same old rhetoric - if you don't believe me then just go back to any prior subject that has over 20 comments and read them. Has anyone noticed that about a year ago there were many different opinions by many different people on this site. now, it is the same group of people holding the same opinions who are quick to cast aside and minimize any opinion that does not fall in line with theirs. before long - and it won't be long - the handful of you can simply comment to one another as there won't be any free - flow dialogue or debate. you will finally have what you apparently want - a closed congregation of like - minded people who find nothing redeeming about most of the rest of us. I know it does not matter to most of you who post here every day and i am sure i am about to hear all about what a bad person i am, but i am sure i am not alone when i say it is a real turn off to listen to the consant and consistent drum beat of just how sorry we are as a country.

Chris said...

Amen, anonymous!

Glad you hold our Founding Fathers in high esteem, Larry. I would never have known had I not brought the subject up.

I skimmed over some of his book, it's online. Very depressing. I doubt a person would get a clear picture of our history by reading this book. Of course, Zinn didn't write it to give a picture of our history. He wrote it to bring down capitalism.

But rest assured he will fail. The country is overwhelmingly conservative in spite of the media, our President and Congress. I can't wait till November!

Larry James said...

Anon 9:40, thanks for your comments. I regret that you feel the way you do. You are most welcome here. I hope you'll keep posting.

It is hard for me to believe that this simple little post about a scholar whom I respect and whose word deserves to be read (and yes, Chris, it is depressing but documented).

I love my country. If and when I question the actions of the nation, it is out of love, respect and partiotism that I do so. The social services data does not lie. And, I'm surrounded by lovely people on a daily basis who are not angry, but very, very poor. And, I believe that my faith tells me that we must do better. In a free democracy, that means we can benefit from public actions and that calls for debate and engagement.

For the record, I am not a Marxist, Chris' opinion not withstanding. Never have been. I do believe that equity and justice are values to be pursued.

Again, Anon, I hope you'll come back and keep commenting. BTW-most days we have no comments at all, almost always on the days that I post about some progress, some success or some pressing need.

c hand said...

Of course the facts of history are colored by bias, and I too have a bias.

Fact - Two planes hit the WTC on 9/11/2001

My bias - the builings were full of inocences who didn't deserve to die.
Ward Churchill's bias - The little eichmans deserved it.
Zinn's bias - it was no different than what the US military does.

My bias - The US military fights honorably to kill an enemy that murders inocents.

Larry's bias? - there is more of a moral equivalence between the combatants.

Daniel's bias? - The muslim millitants are in some cases more morally justified than the US military.

Yes, we all have a bias.

Daniel said...

9:40 -- I agree with Larry, the majority of his posts are positive and progress-ive. But you're also ignoring the fact that the "comments" from people on the blog are what are depressing, hateful, and anti-american. How many times have anonymous posters, chris, and c-hand prophesied the destruction of America and the failure of all things, simply because they disagree with the party in power. You call Larry a pessimist because you differ in political views, though he speaks with passion and hope for a better country.

The bickering and degradation of America which you speak of is not coming from Larry, but from commenters who are unhappy with losing their political game. I've read this blog for over 4 years, and I don't recall Larry ever degrading and hoping for the failure of the political leaders in power whose approached he disagreed with.

c-hand, I'm flattered that you singled me out, but I can't fathom how you reached the conclusion from my comments that I believe more in the cause of Muslim terrorists than in the US military. Your ignorance and blind passion are destructive, and your comments on this blog are almost always depressing, because it reminds me that there are still too many ego-centric people in this world who refuse to process opinions different from their own.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @9:40, Feb 9:

Why do you want to hear positive things about America at this blog and in its comments?

Why do you equate negative talk about America with hatred of America?

Why is it a turn-off to hear negative things about America?

Jeff W

Daniel said...

PS, chand I guess my bias is that a I care so much, while your bias is that you hate America.

(Anyone can play that game, so maybe you should stop putting words into other people's mouths while passing yourself off as the innocent, victimized, patriot).

Anonymous said...

c hand:

Instead of talking about commenters' opinions about 9/11, let's talk about the biases of historians who seek to explain Columbus &co., since their works and, we presume, opinions are out there for all to see.

Can you enunciate the differences among the treatments of Columbus in Zinn and in other histories? Can you deduce any differences among these historians values, perspectives, and world views? Can you evaluate those differences and, if so, enunciate your own basis for judgment?

If you can do that, then we can begin to have a conversation about these things.

Jeff W

TwoCents said...

Daniel @ 10:06 -


TwoCents said...

I love my children. I praise them for what they do well. But because I know them so well, I also know where they sometimes fall short and encourage them to do better in those areas.

Why would we not show the same love for our country?

Anon 9:40, does our reaction to everything the US does really have to be "everybody gets a trophy"? Praise for actions that are not praiseworthy is unjust and dishonest. Calling out the US for things it has not done so well is not "hating" America. Quite the opposite, it is caring too much about her not to say something.

Larry James said...

Again, the assumptions expressed in many comments here about how one "does history" reflect a basic misunderstanding of the craft. Just as this evening's national news will present many points of data re the "happenings of the day," so will the interpretations begin almost immediately as to what these data points indicate, mean and how they should be interpreted. Much like theological studies, as time passes various schools of thought arise to interpret the primary documents of our history--thus, for example, differing schools of thought re the Constitution and the framers' original intentions, etc.

When Zinn goes inside the American labor movement and reads the primary documents, he interprets just as do all others who study American Labor. Every historian brings him or herself to the task and all work to maintain some separation between themselves and their source materials. I could go on a long time on this matter. I remember the most unsettling course that I took at Tulane University, when I was working on graduate degrees there, was the reading course on historiography, my first encounter with the business of writing history. The level of ill-well generated by my simple expression of appreciation for the scholarship of one man who died after a lifetime of work is, frankly, startling.

c hand said...

Twocents - I love my wife. I praise her for what she does well. But because I know her so well, I also know she will never be perfect and so I don't withold my love for when she becomes good enough for me.

Jeff W - That Zinn grades on the curve is understandable, after all Columbus brought an advanced civilization into contact with a stone-age primitive people. Of course they should be expected to behave far better than the natives, and for the most part they did.

Larry - The level of ill-well generated by Zinn and his followers toward this greatest and best of countries is, frankly, startling.

Anonymous said...

Greatest and best for whom?

Until you can begin to grasp the importance of that question, c hand, you will continue to be impervious to careful, self-critical thought about the U.S.'s past. That failure to be honest with yourself and to try to see things from another's perspective will appear to be sociopathy to those for whom this nation is not greatest or best.

Jeff W

Chris said...

I'll make it easy for you, Larry. I appreciate the so called "schlorship" of Zinn like I would appreciate the schlorship of Hitler or Stalin. They all wanted to bring down our system of government. Capitalism has given us the most phosphorus country in the world. Larry, you need to straighten up and fly right.

Anonymous said...

"Most phosphorus [sic]" for whom?

Jeff W

c hand said...

Jeff W - Greatest and best for whom? the World, I am reminded of a story

Held in the African nation of Zaire, a famous fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman was billed — quite insensitively by contemporary standards — as the "Rumble in the Jungle." In any case, after the fight was over and the victorious Ali returned to America, he was asked by a reporter what he thought of Africa. He replied, "Thank God my granddaddy got on that boat."

Yes slavery was bad and people suffered unjustly, but it was a universal sin not unique to US and Ali saw that.
And this country paid a terrible price for the sin of slavery

Daniel said...

Ever heard of superlatives?

Better is > good, but that doesn't make it best. Just because something is incrementally better does not make it acceptable. There are always people who are left out, taken advantage of, or left behind in our society. That's the point that Zinn (and Eric Foner, another historian) make.

I'll just go ahead and be blunt: Stop wishing for the president to fail -- it's the most anti-american, anti-democratic thing you can do.

Chris, stop throwing around names like Hitler and Stalin -- they lost their shock value a long time ago and are purely a symbol of lazy argument. When you have an advanced degree in history, then you can discredit the other guy.

Anonymous said...

I have too much I need to be reading, but I am going to read this book. That seems fair. I have posted here numerous times and I think I come across as being pretty conservative, but just because a person is critical of America does not mean he or she does not love America. To me a good example of this is George McGovern. I had an almost totally negative view of him until I read Stephen Ambrose's book The Wild Blue. Another point that Larry makes that I think is valid is that every historian writes with their own perspective. I wish we would all learn from the consistant civility of Larry. We would all do well to compare the tone of our comments with the tone of Larry's.

R Corum

Ron said...

I am a conservative Christian and have been a Republican since long before it was popular in Texas. But authentic conservatism demands intellectual honesty and a willingness to seek to be more like Jesus regardless of my political inclinations, and regardless of my self interest. Intellectual honesty demands that I humbly recognize that I may be wrong, and that there is another side to the story that I need to be open to, and that I need to constantly seek to understand more completely instead of simply looking for ways to bolster my position on an issue or resorting to schoolyard name calling of those who disagree with me. Reading the daily news, and reading the Bible with an open heart, leaves me no alternative but to conclude that 1) while our system may be the best available, it still has flaws that among other things have rewarded at obscene levels (and with my tax dollars) those failed business leaders who have led our economy to the brink of disaster with safety nets and bail outs, while tossing aside those who are hurt the most by the misdeeds of the powerful; 2) Few issues in the Bible get as much attention as God's concern about "the least of these" and His express and repeated admonitions that if we are to be more like Christ, we must be more attuned to taking care of the least of these; and 3) If I am true to my hearts desire to be more like Christ, I can not pick and choose some Biblical issues to align with (abortion, opposition to gay marriage) as being "a Christian agenda" while labeling other Biblical issues (caring for the least of these, not spreading rumors, not name calling) as Marxist or simply ignoring them as irrelevant. If we aspire to be a "Christian nation" which some on the right proclaim we should be... the New Testament provides a few basic benchmarks for evaluating the presence of authentic Christianity, including 1) caring for the least of these;
2) caring for the widows and orphans; 3) demonstrating genuine love to our fellow man; and 4)how we treat each other. I certainly disagree with many of Zinn's perspectives. But intellectual honesty demands that I acknowledge the echos from the prophet Micah which resound through Zinn's perspectives. And my aspiration to be more Christlike leaves me no alternative but to acknowledge my duty to be more attuned to the needs of those individuals who Zinn says our society has tossed aside. I can not help but think that if Larry simply quoted Jesus, or Micah without attribution, the Marxist name calling would have been even more lively.

Anonymous said...

So who rewarded the failed business leaders with bailouts?The main reason for the housing collapse was people like Barnry Franks and Chris Dodd and the Community Reinvestment Act which ordered banks to give loans to people who had no hope of paying back.

Anonymous said...

This is a late comment, but I have now read a good portion of the book. I continue to find Zinn's lack of footnotes frustrating. I don't doubt that he uses credible sources, but I would love to check a few. I would never in a million years use this book as a primary textbook on American history. The book came across to me as jaded and one of the most anti-American documents I have ever read. The story of America is a mosaic with both good and bad. It is like Zinn has taken only the negatives about our country and brought them to the forefront to tell the world how bad we are. Having said that, I do believe that there is always another side to history, and Zinn certainly shows the other side, but without other texts to balance his clear bias against America I would think that students would be led in a totally wrong direction. When all is said and done I still believe that we live in a great country. I have no doubt that Larry believes that. I was not left with the impression that Zinn believed that, but at least he is not boring.

Richard Corum

Larry James said...

Richard, thanks for the post and, even more, for reading Zinn! As to references/sources, like most general survey college American History textbooks, Zinn avoids footnotes, but his research is based on sound, but seldom read or studied sources that emergy from the "underside" and the "underclass" across the board.

Possibly one reason why Zinn is important to me is the fact that I live in Texas. Our state board of education has turned textbook selection into a culture war. The story of America adopted by some of these decision makers is highly biased and one-sided. Some would make the founding fathers of America out to be Evangelical, Fundamentalists, and all serious historians know better than that.

rcorum said...

Larry, thanks for your response. Unfortunately I am not privy to Texas politics, and I too am amazed at how the founding fathers are often portrayed. The retelling of history can really not be done without bias, at least to some degree. Have a great day.