Problematizing My Faves: Matt Taibbi on Howard Zinn

The worst thing is to claim to be objective. Of course, you can’t be. Historians should say what their values are, what they care about, what their background is, and let you know what is important to them so that young people and everybody who reads history are warned in advance that they should never count on any one source, but should go to many sources. 
–Howard Zinn, The Future of History: Interviews with David Barsamian

Many years ago, I expressed my appreciation for historian Howard Zinn, not least for his willingness to write a blurb for my first book, a critical study of Elie Wiesel. From fall 2010 to summer of 2011, several friends and I read and discussed two chapters each month of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. For the past couple of years I’ve been a subscriber to journalist Matt Taibbi at Substack. Last year on Thanksgiving Day, Taibbi had the following to say about Zinn…

Zinn’s Columbus is a genocidal monster who not only massacred natives from The Bahamas to Haiti, and sold women and children by the thousands for “sex and labor,” but was so personally petty that he stole the reward of the poor sailor on his own ship who spotted land first, by claiming the feat himself. It’s hard to read Zinn’s account, which includes horrifying details like Indians murdering their own children to spare them the tortures of life under Spaniards, and not have a second thought or ten about the legend of the “discovery of America.”i

I found A People’s History a fascinating and enjoyable read when I first read it in college, but that was when it was a ballsy, quasi-forbidden counterfactual to official narrative, not anyone’s idea of the actual “History of the United States.” The national idea of historical reflection back then was Forrest Gump, literally a two-hour shrug. In that context, the book made sense. Decades later, in the middle of a reverse cultural mania that devours it as gospel, Zinn’s book reads like the rantings of a mental patient.

After he finishes his tale of Columbus’s rampage through sinless indigenous cultures, Zinn contrasts it with the fables Americans of the time were all taught in school, in which “there is no bloodshed” upon the his arrival. He goes on to torch as an example the work of Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, whose Christopher Columbus, Mariner contains only a passing reference to the “cruel policy initiated by Columbus… [that] resulted in complete genocide.”

It takes stones to write an entire book about a major historical figure and include as a throwaway line, “And by the way, he committed genocide.” Incredibly, Zinn manages to be just as bad, if not worse. Of course A People’s History was designed to be the missing case for the prosecution, a chronicle of everything the Morrisons of the world left out, but his version of five hundred years of history contains just two characters, pure villains and pure victims. You’ve heard of Alien versus Predator; the People’s History could have been titled Hitlers and Baby Seals

All his Europeans from Columbus on down are more or less indistinguishably monstrous, and even Abraham Lincoln and FDR are almost interchangeable capitalist tools, at most to be congratulated for being unenthusiastic oppressors. (The book in this sense reads a lot like the 1619 Project). A People’s History after its release in 1980 was often described as “radical,” but the radicalism wasn’t in the subject matter, but its maniacal sorting of people into two simplistic piles. Decades before it was fashionable, Zinn sketched out an intersectional construct that flattened much of humanity into a single interconnected mass of one-dimensional victimhood, “centering” the matrix of America’s oppressed:

The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. 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.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees…

No matter how interesting a book he or she is able to write, any author who admits to looking out at the world and seeing only “victims and executioners” needs psychological help. Unfortunately, Zinn in this respect turned out to be a pioneer, presaging a generation of comic-book thinkers who understand things in binary terms, forever preoccupied with cramming people in neat categories of oppressors and oppressed.

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