Howard Zinn: Complains about bad review in the NYTHistorians in the News
Walter Kirn’s review of my book “A Young People’s History of the United States” (June 17) attributes to me the belief that “telling the truth is not Job 1 for historians.” The reviewer seems to hold to the l9th-century von Ranke idea that there is one truth to be told. Most historians, and most intelligent people, including bright 12-year-olds, understand that there is no such thing as a single “objective” truth, but that there are different truths according to the viewpoint of the historian. Kirn is intent on giving a sinister ring to what is common sense.
Kirn is irritated because his “truth” is not mine. His truths — built around veneration of the “great men” of the past: the political leaders, the enterprising industrialists — add up to exactly the simplistic history fed to young people over the generations, which my book tries to replace. His kind of history produces a submissive population, always looking for saviors on high. I prefer that readers of history, including the young, learn that we cannot depend on established authority to keep us out of war and to create economic justice, but rather that solving these problems depends on us, the citizenry, and on the great social movements we have created.
My history, therefore, describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, César ChÃ¡vez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan). My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain, who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism.
Kirn is annoyed at my refusal to go along with the orthodox romanticization of Lincoln. I suspect he has not read the chapter on Lincoln in Richard Hofstadter’s classic, “The American Political Tradition,” in which Hofstadter brilliantly punctures what he calls the “Lincoln legend.”
Kirn says: “Writing about abolitionism, Zinn leaves the impression that freeing the slaves was not enough.” It seems he does not know of the work of W. E. B. Du Bois and Eric Foner, who document the betrayal of the freed slave after the Civil War.
I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.
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