Our remodeling project continues* with yesterday’s installation of new patio doors in the living room and master bedroom.
The dogs and I hid out in the home office while the contractors worked, at least until Donna’s 10 o’clock Zoom meeting, at which point we switched places and I took over monitoring the work from my chair in the family room. God, I love it when we can afford to hire professionals to do the work!
The new doors are great. They slide! They seal! The screens have no holes! About the only thing they don’t do is photograph well, and that’s not their fault. It’s just hard to tell the difference between old doors and new doors in a photo.
I’m about to get dressed and take Mister B for his morning walk, then pick up a library book I put on hold for Donna to read, The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal … yes, I’m trying to turn her onto science fiction, if only so we can watch more streaming TV shows together!
Banned Books Week is almost upon us, and I’m already thinking about it in light of Trump’s planned Commission to Promote Patriotic Education, announced yesterday. A historian named Howard Zinn wrote a book titled “A People’s History of the United States” in 1980, a book immediately branded as subversive by American exceptionalists and conservatives in general, and I was not surprised to see Trump mention Zinn by name in his announcement:
“As many of you testified today, the left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”
This seems an appropriate time to repost my 2014 review of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and to recommend it to true American patriots, i.e., patriots who care about this country and want to build a better America for all of us.
A People’s History of the United States
Read a representative sample of comments on Goodreads or any book review site and you’ll appreciate how polarizing A People’s History of the United States is. Readers tend to fall into two exclusionary camps: lovers and haters.
Zinn’s history has been the target of censors and book banners from its publication in 1980 to the present day. The ongoing controversy over A People’s History is what motivated me to read it.
As a child I believed my country was exceptional. That’s what I was taught; that’s what the adults I looked up to believed. Victory in WWII was still fresh and the economy was booming under Eisenhower, at least for white middle class families like mine. When I was still very young my father joined the US Air Force and we began to move around the country. I was exposed to families who were not like the ones I saw on TV, families who experienced a different American reality from the one I was taught. At an age when I was politically aware enough to know segregation was wrong and could not last, we were stationed in Virginia and I was sent to a segregated whites-only school. Shortly afterward I gave up believing in fairy tales and god. I started reading on my own, a habit I never successfully broke. I protested our early involvement in Vietnam, packed clothes and food for the Freedom Riders, helped a friend obtain conscientious objector status, joined SNCC. American history, to me, had begun to look not all that different from the history of any other country.
Which is to explain that I knew at least some of the untaught history of the USA before I ever picked up Howard Zinn’s book. Nevertheless, the factual information collected here is shocking. Even for an old cynic like me, the accumulation of sordid details is depressing. On and on Howard Zinn goes, relentlessly rubbing our noses in American history as it was experienced by the Indians, indentured servants, black slaves and freemen, the poor, the landless, the unprivileged, women, child laborers, the bottom 50%. Zinn frankly admits this was his express purpose in researching and writing A People’s History; if you accept his premise — that it is just as important to study history from the point of view of the oppressed as it is from the point of view of the oppressors — then everything he relates in this book follows. But damn, it’s depressing to try to digest it all at once, even if you appreciate the importance of what Zinn was trying to accomplish.
So it’s no wonder to me why an entire political camp — the American right — rejects Zinn’s book. The history it recounts, starting with the very first chapter (Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress; a chapter so shocking and disturbing I suspect many conservative readers never progress beyond it, and that you can read right now by clicking on the title, above) is incompatible with any notion of American exceptionalism. Or fairies. Nor is it a wonder to me that many on the American right would attempt to suppress this book, purge it from schools and colleges, and call for it to be banned outright. The attack on Zinn and his book follows familiar lines: the author is an America-hater and a Marxist; A People’s History is praised by Hollywood celebrities, championed by leftists, and taught by subversives; Zinn’s interpretation of history is meant to weaken American minds and pave the way for implementation of United Nations Agenda 21.
In 2009 at North Safford High School in Virginia, A People’s History of the United States was challenged as “un-American, leftist propaganda,“ even though it was not the primary textbook in that school’s AP history class and was taught alongside an article titled Howard Zinn’s Disappointing History of the United States, critical of Zinn’s book.
When Howard Zinn died in 2010, Indiana’s then-Governor Mitch Daniels emailed the state’s top education official. “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” he began. He went on to demand that A People’s History be hunted down in Indiana schools and suppressed: “It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” In 2013, Daniels, now president of Purdue University, defended his earlier attempt to ban Zinn’s book from Indiana schools: “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools.”
In 2012, the Tucson Unified School District banned several books from local high schools. Prominent on the list of banned textbooks (still banned as I write this review) is A People’s History.
Just this year, in 2014, conservative school board members in Jefferson County, Colorado, proposed sweeping changes to the AP history curriculum. I do not know if Zinn’s book, or parts of it, is being studied by AP history students in Jefferson County, but the statements of the conservative school board members make me think Zinn’s book is on their target list: “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials, and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights,” reads the proposal, presented by conservative board member Julie Williams. “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
Needless to say, I do not adhere to the conservative camp when it comes to the suppression of thought or the denial of historical fact. Zinn’s history helps fill in the gaps in our education and gives us a necessary insight on American exceptionalism as it was experienced by the people we’d just as soon forget. I think it makes the thoughtful student a better and more patriotic American, able to appreciate how much we have actually done to wrest control of our country, and our history, from the one percent who would otherwise be totally in charge. But that’s just me.
With all that said, Zinn’s history, though well-written and researched, is a tough one to read, and might overwhelm people reading about the less savory parts of our nation’s history for the first time. It’s hard not to say to yourself, once or twice per chapter, “Gee, Zinn, would you lighten up a little?”
For further study: a few links relevant to the banning and suppression of A People’s History of the United States:
- Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch-hunt
- A People’s History Banned in Tucson Schools
- Students of Jefferson County Colorado Give the Nation a History Lesson
- Howard Zinn’s Biased History
© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.