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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.

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