Zinn and the art of historical revisionism

July 17, 2013
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I was in high school when Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”—the book at the center of the recent Mitch Daniels dust-up (see story here)—was released and what I remember about it has less to do with specific events illuminated in its pages and more to do with the shift in perspective it offered.


Zinn’s tome took the focus off political and military leaders, removed the assumption of manifest destiny, and made clear that, while wars were being fought and our nation expanding, most people were living their lives. Sometimes, these ordinary people—individually or collectively—had a positive impact on the way our country formed. Sometimes—individually or collectively—they were destroyed by the decisions of people in power.

History is complicated. Governments lie. Texts are written by human beings (for centuries, human beings with power) and human beings are complicated animals. None of this should come as a surprise to fascists, hard-line communists, or anyone in between. But it was eye-opening stuff in an age before the Internet, before History Channel documentaries, and before anyone I knew used the word “revisionist.” Even critics of Zinn (see example here) acknowledge how important his book was when it was published.

Although I didn’t major in the subject in college, Zinn’s book opened my eyes to a wider view of history. I later read the popular history of Daniel Boorstin (who I found far more balanced than Zinn), got my first regular writing gig penning a column on lesser-known incidents in Philadelphia history, and tried to see events in the world from a perspective wider than just the government mouthpiece. I thank Zinn, in part, for that.

While Zinn was a populist pioneer, he was far from perfect. His biggest flaw was not making corrections to his book in future editions. The best historians—like the best scientists—respond and revise as facts as come to light. That’s especially essential in a book that went through multiple printings during the author’s lifetime. I don’t doubt that there are as many—if not more—errors in most other history texts published 30 years ago, but that doesn’t forgive its inaccuracies.

Zinn’s biggest achievement, on the other hand, was helping to make 99.9% of the world population (aka "the rest of us") a part of the historical discussion.

Your thoughts?

  • Thank you
    Lou, thank you for your comments. I confess until this morning, I - Hoosier born and educated - had never heard of the Zinn book until this story revealed itself. As a history buff, I am now prompted to get a copy to see for myself! As for Mitch, something about this whole story doesn't match up. It's not that I think he can't or doesn't have a God complex at times, but I have never seen him as the ideological follower of the extreme right as portrayed in the AP story. Having worked in academia for many years, I think the guy at Purdue is 100% correct: if Mitch thinks he can issue directives from on high a la corporate America and have faculty ask "how high?" when he says "jump," he has another thing coming. He has apparently issued a rebuttal, as I see in that other newspaper in town (but I can't read the story as I am not a subscriber). In the interest of hearing both sides, I am curious to hear what he has to say. I have found this whole story REALLY interesting...
  • Fair and balanced and facts
    Zinn's populist treatise doesn't set well with many that prefer control and guidance. It's one view of how we got here, and it's not entirely balanced but it's a keen perspective to understand. The problem with its rejection in these circumstances-- a sitting State Governor attempting to ban it, is that it has valid context as both fact and opinion. Some don't want to listen to, or even acknowledge that other opinions have validity. It's the intellectual equivalent of putting one's fingers in one's ears in the "I can't hear you" context. I expect that from some, but not for individuals responsible for governance in a civil society, or in responsible roles as university administrators. This is childish behavior on a good day. On a bad day, it's tragic.
    • Tom said it...
      ...best and I agree completely, Zinn's look at history is much more accurate than the propaganda BS fed to us in school. Daniels' corporate 'history' revisionism is exactly the problem of propaganda we face in this country today forced on us mainly by ignorant right wing idjits with a VERY specific agenda, to keep most of the masses very ignorant of their fraud and theft (and it works for them, hence Indiana's reputation as North Mississippi)
    • Thanks Lou
      Thanks for a great background on Zinn who many of us had never heard before yesterday. We are surrounded by interpretation and opinion daily. And we interpret and give our opinions everyday. So some people disagree with Zinn's well thought out analysis. So what? To ban someone who might help people think deeper and analysis harder seems like the crime here.
    • Great Column
      Thank you Lou for the great column. Like some others, I had never heard of this book prior to the news yesterday. You did a great job of simply explaining it. Bravo!!
    • Thanks Lou
      Well put Lou...I read many a page in college that put a different spin on what I had been taught prior...it did not keep me from being an independent thinker. Same with professors...I had more than one in college (BSU) who were Socialists, others who were conservative. College should, among other things, teach you to think for yourself by exposing you to different ideas, philosophies, dogma...I find the Governor's attempt to ban this book more than troubling...Censorship is the way oppressive governments and the wealthy and powerful seek to keep "the rest of us" as you so aptly put it, in the dark and under their thumb. I'll be real interested as someone who generally gave the former Governor the benefit of the doubt as to how he defends himself here, because I am having a hard time coming up with what I would consider an accepatble defense for doing this...maybe he was just better at concealing his agenda than some of his cronies, but at a time when the Koch's are exerting great influence over PBS and its ilk, certain very wealthy and powerful are buying up our sources of information to limit criticism of their aganda...and some of the uber-rich and powerful are so out of touch that they are saying things like the poverty line of 34K a year for a family in America actually puts you in the top 1% of the wealthiest people in the world...and that all the water sources on earth should be corporate controlled and sold only to those who can pay...you realize how remote and out of touch these people are, what their agenda really is, and how important the free expression of ideas is to a truly free society.
    • Overrated
      Zinn is adequate at best, overrated at worst. Take him for what he's worth--a mildly interesting reading assignment in a freshman history course at college. Move on from there.
    • Lord Shortie
      "Lord Shortie," as the diminutive Daniels is known locally, may find himself flummoxed when he takes on academia and attempts to introduce and exert his brand of fear-based Mussolini style leadership he once wielded in Indiana state government. Daniels is to higher education what Randall Tobias was to the US State Department.
    • Zinn would delight in reading this column!
      I imagine Zinn would be delighted by this column on several counts. He would certainly enjoy the wonderful writing and would probably ask Lou why he was the focus of this article rather than Mitch Daniels given the current allegation concerning Daniels and real censorship. He would have most definitely been amused by that I think. Great column! Thanks! Here is a good defense of Zinn's work: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/08/27/howard-zinn-at-90-defending-the-people-s-historian.html
    • Got'cha
      I'm tempted to say this is an affront to Mitch because this isn't a text approved by the Texas Board of ED (imagine their fun time summer reading suggestions). However, it also reflects the feelings of those who oppose bad things like "Black", "Womens'", or "Native American" studies, because the wonders of our destiny get poked by voices they can't control and write out of our OFFICIAL history.
    • Thanks Mitch, I now own the Zinn!
      Thanks to Mitch, I now recall the Zinn book that I had never gotten around to reading when it first came out. And thanks to my Kindle, I'm now the proud possessor of the volume and look forward to the read. I find myself wondering if I would ever try to ban books I thought were extreme--creationism, perhaps--and I truly believe the best approach is to let such books be read and the chips fall where they may. Sad, isn't it, how the immediate response of so many in power is to ban things they don't like. Maybe if they felt their own views were more broadly appealing and self evident, they could let the chips fall... Anyway, good luck in the academic world, Mitch.
    • Questions to be asked
      1. Doesn't it seem kind of odd for Daniels to get so bent out of shape over one historian? Those emails were rather striking in showing the level of his anger. 2. Was this at all an appropriate use of his time? 3. Are there other emails just waiting to come out? The AP surely didnt find these by accident. 4. What might Mr. Pence be doing behind the scenes in this vein? 5. Does this explain Ball State's curious recent hires in their science faculty ?
    • Zinn was right place, right time
      Although Zinn's book could have been revised, it was definitely of its time. It turned history as a discipline from political to social and sparked a number of thinkers in other disciplines to question the prevailing narrative. And therein lies its threat: it was anti-authoritarian and small-d democratic, and told women and minorities that they have a place at the historical table. Daniels' concern was not for factual inaccuracies and "the children," it was for the adults that these children would become--skeptical, freethinking and empowered. Don't be fooled by his current talk about "academic freedom" at Purdue: it is code for a new attempt to exalt conservative thinking in the academy and bury the "liberal bias" that is, apparently, ruining America.
    • MD Bashing
      Seems like everyone wants to jump on this bandwagon. I won't bite. I provide the following quotes from the Stanford critique of Zinn's work referenced in Lou's column: "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." "... a heavily filtered and weighted interpretation becomes dangerous when we are talking about how we educate the young, those who do not yet get the interpretive game." More leftist ideology being shoved down our throats. Like him or not, it seems that MD is justified here IMHO.
    • Youth and the Ideological Tome
      If I had a dime for every young person who reads Zinn's A People's History of the United States and swings passionately left for awhile, or conversely reads Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged and swings right, I'd have a lot of dimes. Youth is a time to soak up big ideas and to newly define oneself, often in opposition to more conventional views. Experience tempers most of us to whatever degree, as time passes, and we are none the worse for having embraced a new way of viewing the world with zeal. It's partly what makes the great middle way possible for most of us. Conservatives should trust that their ideas are big enough to compete in the marketplace of ideas, rather than trying to insulate young people from the ideas of the left. Now instead of people asking, "Who is John Galt?," Mitch Daniels has people asking, "Who is Howard Zinn?"
    • Historical Relevance
      While Howard Zinn was not the first individual to question the nature of history he does own a place in it. His political views and activism are probably more interesting than his writing. His FBI status alone should speak to his influence and status. Everyone, regardless of political alignment or personal views, should be constantly concerned about the information we absorb. It's fair, possibly even a duty, to question everything. That should be the Zinn legacy. As for Mitch Daniels, whom I personally like, he is still a product, through his early political affiliations, of a "cold war-ish" mentality. As we are becoming more and more aware, this is a wildly myopic view of the 20th Century. The idea that any view, however slanted, would be questioned with regards to it's potential political censorship is as Un-American as virtually anything I can contemplate, although our government has attempted it before, even recently, and most certainly will again. It reminds me of a quote Alan Moore... “People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
    • Howard Zinn was a communist
      Howard Zinn was a front-man for the Communist Party. His history books are Communist propaganda. The Communists murdered tens of millions of people. Why would we want to teach this to our kids?

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