20 January 2013

The insular culture of the environmental movement is endemic in the left. The popularity of Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States is a prime example. Written in 1980, this book continues to be the main source of truth for leftists who want to learn about the “other” side of history. The problem with Zinn’s book is that his conclusions are far less radical than he would have you think.

American historiography is an interesting topic. Americans have always believed that our republic is unique and first among nations. American Exeptionalism has unfortunately led to bad history writing. It is difficult to believe that America is the best country in the world, while at the same time acknowledging that much of the success of the early republic was based upon the institution of slavery. Historians have long whitewashed American history to make it fit the narrative of American Exceptionalism. The teaching of American history in schools is still lacking, and many students fail to grasp the complexities of our history.

This is the story that Zinn is fighting against. It has long been a truism that history is written by the victors. Zinn wants his readers to hear about the losers, or as he has it, the “people”. Zinn’s most ardent supporters would have you believe that he is the one true voice trying to rise above the rest of the white washers.

Many people have bad memories of history classes, because they were forced to memorize dates. There is a widespread misunderstanding about the nature of history. For the non-professional, history is simply what is read in a book. The text books give the triumphal view of history, while Zinn tells the other side of the story. History is actually an ongoing debate. Historians are constantly revising our view of the facts. New evidence is introduced, new ways of thinking about the past come into vogue, and, as a result, a new view of history arises.

The project of reappraising American history goes back to the Progressive Era, a full 80 years before Zinn’s book came out. The so called “Progressive Historians” set out to write a more democratic history. Again in the 1960s historiography was in upheaval. The voices of women and African Americans were considered in the telling of history, and the story changed based on these voices. The historical profession is constantly revising it’s the way the story is told.

Zinn, for some reason, does not feel that he needs to take place in this debate. He has represented his books as the one true source. This is convenient for a left that has so little time for internal dissent. Leftists hold up A People’s History as the antidote to right-wingers who continue to peddle the antiquated versions of whitewashed history.

Though there is no shortcut to knowledge, one can hardly expect non-historians to be fully engaged with historiographical debates. As a practical matter, citizens need a single source where they can go to find information about their history.


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