People’s vs Patriot’s – Part II – People’s Introduction

Patriot’s vs People’s is an analytical review of two books about American history that most would assume are politically opposed – Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s A Patriot’s Guide to the History of the United States and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It started as an idea after I bought Zinn’s book and was given Schweikart and Allen’s by an uncle who so rightly explained his gift as a way for me to read “the other side of the story.” I decided to read them side by side, chapter by chapter, in order to compare and contrast the two works to each other. It didn’t go so well. This is Part II, here are Part I, Part III and Part IV.

Last week, I gave my review of the introduction to Schweikart and Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States. I went a bit harsh on them, but that’s only because the authors seemed to be suffering from an extreme case of confirmation bias. I guess that’s OK. We’re all guilty if it, just some of us are more guilty than others, I suppose.

It is now time to turn our inquiring minds to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Let’s hope Zinn can balance things better.

The title could mean a lot of things to a lot of people. For the authors of Patriot’s, however, A People’s History of the United States, “honestly represents its Marxist biases in the title!” [Exclamation theirs] I’m not sure which part of the title is Marxist, but I’m guessing it’s the “People’s” part, probably because some communist countries are called the “People’s Republic of Whatever” and Marx is the godfather of communism. It’s an emotional salvo, but factually strained. Marx never published anything called A People’s anything and by Patriot’s logic, Google’s most Marxist result is…

The People’s Choice Awards. Seriously, Patriot’s? Lame sauce.

Other than the “Marxist” title, People’s has no introduction, no statement of purpose, no interviews, and no out-and-out chest thumping, acerbic, and/or combative blurb on the back, except for this:

Known for its lively, clear prose as well as its scholarly research, A People’s History of the United States is the only volume to tell America’s story from the point of view of – and in the words of – America’s women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers.

Such an altruistic aim – those people are often denied a voice in history books – but don’t worry. Although People’s begins with the history of the Native Americans encountering Columbus, it does include a thesis statement in this first chapter. It also includes interviews with Zinn and excerpts from his other books, but these are buried way in the back after the index, as if People’s thinks it has nothing to prove.

After describing the terrible things that Columbus’s men did to the Arawak Indians (“terrible things” = fucking genocide), Zinn says, “When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure – there is no bloodshed – and Columbus Day is a holiday.” This must be the line that pissed of Patriot’s authors enough to write their own non-Marxist version of American history for they claim that, according to “any mainstream U.S. history textbook,” “America’s past is a tale of racism, sexism, and bigotry.”

So what’s really in our kids’ U.S. History books – self-righteous heroic adventure or tawdry racist bigot sex? Who knows? Screw it. Let’s hope it’s both and move on.

People’s further elaborates its purpose with an exceptional admittance of the problems inherent in history books. Zinn makes the point that historians should neither lie outright nor by omission and then writes, “It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others […] My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable […] for historians.” He not only admits his shortcomings (and the shortcomings of all historians), he goes on to the say that the decisions historians make in telling history serve (intentionally or not) to support “some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.” So, is this a profound insight or cheap cop out? That probably depends on which side of the aisle you pee on.

Zinn then explains how emphasizing Columbus’s heroism and sailing abilities over the genocide committed by him and his men is an ideological choice that serves only to “justify what was done.” He’s got a point there, but he backs off a bit, saying that condemning “Columbus in absentia […] would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality.” I have to say that if he didn’t want his readers to do that, he shouldn’t have started off with the genocide of the Arawaks at the hands of Columbus.

Before coming to his main reasoning for writing People’s, Zinn says that the idea of the United States as “a community of people with common interests” and “national interest” found in the U.S. Constitution and laws of Congress are mere pretenses. He then delivers his thesis:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest […] And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Although People’s claims to tell the story of the “Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves,” etc., etc., Zinn says he doesn’t want to “grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners” nor to “invent victories for People’s movements.” He instead offers this lofty goal:

If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.

An astute reader, however, would notice that Zinn is indeed inventing victories for people’s movements. His earlier statements about how historians’ decisions serve to support interests means that Zinn either knows that inventing victories will be one of the consequences of his work or that he just unintentionally missed a major point in his own argument. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he knows he is being two-faced, he’s just doesn’t have the cajones to own up to it.

I’m not so sure, however, about the straw man argument that he invents later in the chapter. With his statement, “Was all this bloodshed and deceit – from Columbus to Cortes, Pizarro, the Puritans – a necessity for the human race to progress from savagery to civilization?” Zinn is drawing in any reader that ever felt suspicious, guilty, or angry with the expression “sacrifices were made.” But who is saying that “this bloodshed and deceit” were a necessity – Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro, and the Puritans? People’s is beating a 400-year old dead horse here.

Similarly, Zinn sets up another dubious argument when, speaking of the genocide of Native American tribes, he says, “Beyond all that, how certain are we that what was destroyed was inferior?” Again, who is calling the Native Americans inferior? Columbus, Cortes & Co. made those decisions centuries ago – not me, nor Zinn, nor Patriot’s Schweikart and Allen (At least, not that I know of).

I can sort of understand if Zinn is trying to get his readers to place more stock in the Indians, but he’s not doing it right. Basically, he’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. He writes:

They [the Native Americans] were people without a written language, but with their own laws, their poetry, their history kept in memory and passed on, in an oral vocabulary more complex than Europe’s, accompanied by song, dance and ceremonial drama. They paid careful attention to the development of personality, intensity of will, independence and flexibility, passion and potency, to their partnership with one another and with nature.

But this is just sentimental bullshit that sells Europeans short. “An oral vocabulary more complex than Europe’s?” What the hell is that? And what the hell does he mean by Indians paying “careful attention to […] flexibility?” Or “passion and potency?” Nothing. He means nothing. He’s just trying to get his readers to view Native Americans as more than savages, which is insulting to any reader with a working brain.

Another problem with this portrait of Native Americans is that Zinn falls into his own trap when he lumps the Native Americans together as one people. What happened to “Nations are not communities and never have been?” Or to “The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest?” Hmmm? It’ not OK to lump the Americans together as a whole, but it is OK to lump Indians together? I thought we were supposed “to not be on the side of the executioners” and to not group whole swaths of people together, as Columbus did with the Indians. In fact, I’m not even sure Columbus did that. Whatever.

Zinn sums up his motivation and goal with People’s very nicely in the last sentence:

Even allowing for the imperfection of myths, it is enough to make us question, for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.

When I first read this line, I thought it showed that Zinn was combative, possibly a bit short-sighted, and maybe trying to sell his point to strongly because there is obviously a great need for the history of all people – the more the merrier. But now when I reread that line, I think it shows Zinn laying open a consideration that any inquisitive reader has had while reading history. It is a noble aim and the sentence tells readers what they will be getting with People’s, which is a welcome skeptical view of history as usual.

Let’s just hope it stays that way.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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