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Rethinking Howard Zinn

Colleagues critique popular teacher as historian


Arnold Offner, a former CAS professor of history (from left), William Keylor, a CAS professor of international relations and history, and David Mayers, a CAS professor of political science. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Friends and colleagues of the late Howard Zinn, perhaps BU’s best known political scientist, gathered at the Castle last week to examine the legacy of the historian whose 1980 book, A People’s History of the United States, sold more than two million copies and was the inspiration for the 2009 movie The People Speak.

The seminar, sponsored by the International History Institute and titled Reconsidering Howard Zinn as a Historian, featured short talks by three former colleagues and friends. Zinn, who died in January 2010 at the age of 87, taught in the College of Arts & Sciences political science department for 24 years. And while all three expressed obvious affection and respect for Zinn and admiration for his exceptional quest for the truth, there were several points of disagreement with the great man’s widely shared opinions.

William Keylor, a CAS professor of international relations and history, argued that Zinn unfairly held the United States to a higher moral standard than he did other countries, and later applied similar extraordinarily high standards of behavior to Israel. He also challenged Zinn’s assertion that if “we removed the evil people on Wall Street and big corporations on Madison Avenue, and let the people speak for themselves, then the history of this country would be a lot better than it turned out to be.” Keylor warned that “the people” too often turned to demagogues, citing as an example Joseph McCarthy, the notorious 1950s communist-hunting U.S. senator.

“You can’t just rely on the people,” Keylor told the audience. “You have to rely on the rule of law, separation of powers, an independent legal profession, and so forth, rather than sweeping that away for what the people want.”

David Mayers, a CAS professor of history and an IHI fellow, said Zinn was “magnificent” as both an analyst and an activist on the subject of African American rights. But Mayers said he found Zinn’s all-or-nothing attitude on health care reform too rigid.

“I thought even modest reforms, like those recently enacted by Congress, would be better than nothing,” he said. “If Americans would accept only perfection, it wouldn’t happen. Zinn wouldn’t compromise, and while I admired him, I couldn’t go along with him.”

As he spoke, Mayers pointed to the large photo in the front of the room showing Zinn with fellow political scientists Frances Fox Piven and Murray Levin, both close friends. He recalled that he first met Zinn in a pub, and Zinn offered excellent advice on a book Mayers was working on.

“His literary style was direct, to the point, and elegant without being self-consciously so,” he said. “He taught his colleagues to write with lucidity and accessibility and to use a sturdy anecdote to illustrate the point.”

He also disagreed with some of Zinn’s convictions about the war in Southeast Asia, he said, arguing that Zinn’s justifiable horror over U.S. conduct in the war—using napalm and free fire zones—led him at times to exaggerate the virtues of the other side.

“Zinn had no patience for historians who reduced humans and their moral concerns to mathematical numbers,” Mayers said. “For him, democratic theory was held in flesh-and-blood human beings.”

The final speaker, Arnold Offner, a former CAS professor of history, started with a bang, asserting that Zinn was a much more important historian than the world gave him credit for.

“Unlike most academics, Zinn didn’t regard the time away from the library and away from the footnotes as time lost and gone, time he could have spent writing another article,” Offner said. “Howard returned from every one of his political engagements more enthused and more optimistic about helping students and friends understand the link between the past and present.”

Offner praised Zinn’s historical trailblazing and pointed out, for example, that he was the first historian to write about the Ludlow Massacre—a violent 1914 bloodbath between the Rockefeller family’s fuel company and striking coal miners and their families.

“There is a point in our history that we all want to forget,” he said. “But he wanted to bring out something that many people would rather ignore.”

In a moving moment of looking forward rather than backward, Keylor said that there would never be another historian quite like Zinn, a person with “the same passion, and the same commitment to activism that there was back during the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of the civil rights and antiwar movement.

“Today,” he said, “you don’t see the kind of very polemical history that is based on one’s man’s goal of making change, not just objectively reporting history, but rather affecting and influencing history.”

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

Art Jahnke contributed to this article.


30 Comments on Rethinking Howard Zinn

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2011 at 7:03 am

    You still see it, but unfortunately this time it often comes from those on the right who are motivated to tell the other side of American history. But their efforts are usually met with disgust by the liberal left who follow the teachings of Zinn like mindless sheople. Criticism of Zinn is practically blasphemy in some academic institutions. Those with passion for presenting a more conservative interpretation of our history and those who would opine about the virtues of the founders or a more literal interpretation of the constitution are not equally represented nor respected in most academic circles today.

    The founders believed in the ability of men to govern themselves as did Ziinn but they restricted the power of a government run by those same men via the constitution and bill of rights in an ironic effort to protect us from our own good intentions.

    Thankfully the pendulum swings both ways and hopefully we will one day have a conservative counterpart to Zinn, perhaps even here at BU, who can help us see the other side of the American story.

    • orry on 07.07.2013 at 3:12 pm

      The founders, by all accounts completely ignored the rights of slaves. It does not take a history major to understand that. Just read the constitution. They blazed a new trial with the constitution, but times were still very bad for servants and slaves. I knew this to be true even before I read Zinn’s book and did my own research. The problem with the far left, is that they want to much to fast. The problem with super conservatives, is they fear death and social freedom because of their strict moral codes inherited by their ancient belief systems. The problem with those in the middle, is that the are still controlled by both sides. I propose we take Zinn’s example and view history as an unfortunate consequence of those who win, write the books. I think we need a radical change in thinking and governing to help write our own history. Both the left and the right are wrong because they refuse to see they are in a sense the same. Neither side wants to look in the mirror first.

  • Don Mattes on 03.04.2011 at 7:57 am

    Howard Zinn

    I regret that I never had the chance to meet Mr. Zinn. Even though I work at BU, I didn’t realize who he was until a myriad of events occurred and propelled him to the forefront of my line of sight. I believe it was at a Pearl Jam concert in Boston when Eddie Vedder announced that their next song, “Down” was about Howard Zinn and that the line, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” was an homage to Zinn. A PBS special I saw about Zinn made me recall that I had read his book, “A People’s History of the United States,” and it all made me realize that I had indeed heard about him, but had never made the connection of who he was and that I was so close to where it all happened. There are so few people nowadays who are willing to take a stand and face persecution for their beliefs like Zinn. I’m sure wherever he is, he’s still standing up for those less fortunate.

  • One Sidded Argument on 03.04.2011 at 8:44 am

    There are people who still believe in political action as much as he did. I feel that this was a very one sided argument. What are you trying to prove/disprove BU? We already know people disagree with him…but he represents those who understand systems for what they are. “There is a point in our history that we all want to forget,” he said. “But he wanted to bring out something that many people would rather ignore.” Well isn’t that what historians are SUPPOSED to do? It’s their job to make people think, and especially to remember. One who doesn’t bring up tough subjects isn’t telling the whole story/just part of it. Kind of like American High School textbooks. I am not impressed. This was not a discussion….

  • Nadiyah S. on 03.04.2011 at 9:40 am

    I never heard of Howard Zinn before and happened across his book about a week ago. It is definitely a page turner. Everything and everyone can be critiqued, but if at the core, the pursuit of truth and morality is shown to prevail, then the nit-picking should be directed at the more hypocritical aspects of what is and has been going on in the world. Everyone is entitled to their interpretations, but please direct your energies to uncovering things deemed harmful rather than critiquing someone who aimed to expose what is so easily overlooked and glossed over.

    • orry on 07.07.2013 at 3:15 pm

      I totally agree. Could not have said it better. In the end, we must view history in the sense that we should right wrongs that are still being done, To make the world better for all of our species, in whatever way we can.

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2011 at 9:41 am

    Lost me at "sheople"

    “Thankfully the pendulum swings both ways and hopefully we will one day have a conservative counterpart to Zinn, perhaps even here at BU, who can help us see the other side of the American story.”

    Well, it certainly won’t be you.

  • Motown Basho on 03.04.2011 at 9:42 am

    Howard Zinn

    Sorry, I cannot agree, “You still see it.” Anyone who tries to tell the story from the point of view of the ordinary people is bound to be on the left. Zinn always stood on the side of the poor and the oppressed. He could be polemical in his public persona but always sought to correct the blithe assumption that society is kept afloat by the steady hand of political and business leaders. Society, he knew, was founded on the sweat and blood of the millions of toilers who built the pyramids, the great wall, St. Peter’s, the Pentagon, whose toil feeds us all and whose names are lost to history.

    It is startling that you would think that we need some kind of counterweight to Zinn. The whole media establishment that manages public discourse in America is on the right. Howard Zinn was one voice against the right-wing noise machine.

    As far as limiting the power of government goes: H.D. Thoreau (or maybe Tom Jefferson or Tom Paine or some other lefty) may have said, “That government governs best which governs least,” but I doubt that they thought that to mean that this or any country should be run by a corporate plutocracy as ours is today. How are we to protect ourselves from the depredations of bankers, insurance companies, big Pharma, Wall Street, Wal-Mart, arms dealers, the petroleum industry, mining companies, and agri-business who would systematically impoverish the population and despoil the environment? Our only avenue is by electing representatives who will try to rein in the power of the plutocrats. It happened before in America. It was called the Gilded Age or, as Mark Twain (another troublemaker) dubbed it, “The Age of Incredible Rottenness.” Democracy’s answer? The Progressive Movement, the Labor Movement and – eventually – The New Deal. It’s in the history books. You could look it up.

    In the words of another lefty: “We here highly resolve that…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” See? In a democracy government isn’t our enemy, it’s us. If it ceases to be us, then it is no longer a democracy. What then? Folks in Tunisia, Egypt & Libya are showing us what then.

    Have a nice day.

  • whatever on 03.04.2011 at 9:46 am

    I like Howard Zinn’s extremism and thought that history often time is moved and guided by extremists. Without pretending to be an extremist, pragmatists would not be able to get elected at the first place. For example, President Obama, who now changes his lefty politics and his professed lefty beliefs going for centralism, catering to the interests of big business, hoping to be re-elected. Yes he gets lots of thing done but pragmatists usually would be forgotten by history after they are gone because of they don’t really loved by either side. Thaddeus Stevens and William Jennings Bryan are more famous today than their opponents because of their colorful extremism.

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2011 at 9:54 am

    Conservative Historians

    The conservative interpretations of history are well represented in military history, expecially those that view the action from high above the trenches. You see very few conservative ‘peoples histories’; histories from the viewpoint of average people. In my opinion that is because it is very difficult to look at the actions and circumstances of ordinary people and remain conservative. … personal note to ‘You Still See it, But..’ People who use the phrase ‘sheople’ generally are the ‘sheople.’ Part of the reason there is a diversity of agenda and diversity of thought among the liberal media and population is that the words are the outcome of actual diversity rather than the sheepish repetition of phrases and thoughts made popular by opportunistic pundits in the media.

  • BMaher on 03.04.2011 at 10:49 am

    Howard Zinn

    Other than ignoring the 100 million people or so slaughtered by his Communists/Socialist friends, yes, Howard Zinn was quite the historian. Can anyone tell me where Howard Zinn’s voice was while these people were being tortured and murdered ad nauseum for decades(Just give ma few syllables, please?) Do you think Howard Zinn ever prescribed a book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn? I don’t actually know the answer, but let’s just say I’ll go out on a limb and say absolutely never!
    In his book, “Declarations of Independence,” Zinn talks about his trip to Japan to commiserate the remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do you think Zinn commiserated with the families of the 2 or so thousand American families whose loved ones were slaughtered like dogs at Pearl Harbor? Do you think he commiserates with the Chinese who were slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands by the Japanese at Nanking? At his book signing for his biography at Barnes and Noble at Boston University, I asked him how he could even feign any sense of scholarship when he overlooks the Communist slaughter of millions and millions. He roughly said, oh yeah, but we already learn all that stuff in our public schools. I don’t know if Howard got the memo, but the abomination otherwise known as public schools, doesn’t have people competent enough to teach history, so as expected, the deplorable merit-phobic teachers unions came up with a replacement subject, “Social Studies”–which of course is so devoid of credible purpose or meaning, any cab-driver, etc., can claim to be an authority–perfect for the socialists. I asked Howard, “If you ever find a history book in a public school, please let me know. No, the merit-phobic socialist teachers unions are not interested in teaching children about the 100 million deaths perpetrated by their ideological bedfellows. Posthumous memo to Howard Zinn: Howard, the entire world has been fleeing for over a century(sometimes by tire-tube rafts) to the most conspicuously Capitalist land in the world otherwise known as the United States.

  • George Hicks on 03.04.2011 at 10:54 am

    Reconsidering what, exactly?

    Interestingly, in this article I don’t see any examples of any substantive criticism of Zinn’s work as a historian. Instead there’s a series of comments about his personal political convictions – convictions Zinn wore on his sleeve, as anyone who has read his books or attended his lectures will attest.

    Ironically, this arguably most subjective of modern historians provided more objectivity in his body of work than the rest of his peers combined, to their everlasting shame.

    As with that other bugaboo of the right, the well-footnoted Noam Chomsky, critical thinkers can easily parse Zinn’s analysis and decide for themselves what to make of the facts that he, almost alone among American historians, has presented.

    Of course one may challenge Zinn’s deeply held beliefs, but his work as a historian stands tall. In a world where power routinely “creates its own reality” through relentless repetition of untruths, Howard Zinn’s work continues to speak truth to power. We need more of his kind today.

  • Bill Littlefield on 03.04.2011 at 11:01 am

    Howard Zinn discussion

    Professor Offner’s comments seem to me significant and relevant. Howard Zinn was an original. I admired his energy, his passion, and his commitment to justice. Taking issue with some of his particular positions at this point seems petty and self-serving. Most of the rest of history has been written by the winners. Professor Zinn wrote from another point of view, and many are thankful for his recognition that the stories of people who have stood up against oppression and tyranny are worth telling and remembering.

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2011 at 11:29 am

    He should have taught Marketing

    Howard Zinn understood his audience. By invoking the “people” as his frame of reference, Zinn was able to marginalize the accomplishments of the truly consequential people and institutions of American history without having to engage them in any meaningful way. College professors loved his books because they confirmed all of their liberal prejudices. Students loved them because they were less intellectually demanding than the average Hardy Boys mystery. The professors never caught on to the gag, but many students, once they have had enough experience to see for themselves that the real world does not neatly correspond to Zinn’s cartoonish class warfare model, appreciate him for the academic scam artist that he was.

  • Ian on 03.04.2011 at 11:40 am

    Embarrassed at this event

    I am embarrassed at my school sometimes. We probably had the most important and influential historian of all time, and conservatives and “liberals” have at him, rather than considering that the structural violence of this country’s history is too much to bear.

    Howard Zinn is the reason I came to this school. Its a good thing the youth are more inspired and open minded then these establishment “academics”

  • Scott Mohr - Chemistry on 03.04.2011 at 12:37 pm

    Howard Zinn as an historian-activist

    I had the pleasure of knowing Howard Zinn as a casual, but warm faculty friend — a friendship based on similar perspectives on public issues, primarily war and racism. The Vietnam war turned me into a Quaker pacifist, and Howard and I shared many long Green Line commutes on the D line into BU, during which we had discussions about our personal beliefs and what could be done to influence public policy. We did not always agree, but we stood on the same side of most issues.

    In the seminar reported in BU Today, each of the speakers remarked on Howard’s tendency to take extreme or perfectionist positions — and I have to admit that his doing so often caused me some discomfort… until I looked into his eyes and saw both the kindness and sincerity that they radiated. I’m sure Howard didn’t expect the American body politic to agree with all of his views and goals, but I think — whether consciously or not — he realized that by stating them starkly and boldly he would catch peoples’ attention and set them thinking. In that he was, as the seminar participants testified, abundantly right. In fact, I have come to believe that most thinkers who have changed the course of history have behaved similarly (especially if we consider the majority beliefs that held sway when they expressed their ideas). So I can only hope that the impact Howard had on his contemporaries by staking out extreme and idealistic positions will continue to move our society in the direction of the humane, just and peaceful world he stood for.

  • William Maher on 03.04.2011 at 12:55 pm

    Howard Zinn

    Outside of Howard Zinn ignoring the 100,000 million or so innocent people slaughtered by his Communist/Socialist friends, I guess the lefties have a point celebrating Zinn in a scholarly light. Where was Howard Zinn’s voice when the Communists were deliberately starving and torturing millions people to death, again by the tens of millions? Crickets, anyone? Can someone forward his articles, just maybe even a few syllables about this midget “humanitarian’s” concern for these victims? It was a fantasy of mine to see Howard Zinn debate Alexander Solzenitsyn but I’ll go out on a limb and venture Howard never did get around to inviting Mr. Solzhenitsyn to a debate. In Zinn’s book, “Declarations of Independence,” he cites his trip to Japan to commiserate with the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do you think Zinn commiserated with the several thousand American families whose loved ones were slaughtered at Pearl Harbor? (Don’t hold your breath) Do you think Zinn went to China to commiserate with the victims of the Nanking massacre courtesy of these same Japanese paragons of virtue. When the Japanese were murdering people at a historical rate in Japan, it was front page news in Japan for all to see. Do you think the citizenry rose up to fight such savagery? Again, I’m guessing Howard never ventured too far from his theoretical paradise to investigate and report on such an issue. Well, at least Howard Zinn understood where you wanted to be to easily avoid any semblance of academic inquiry into the Communist slaughter–lefty Academia doesn’t get any more comfy with its airtight kangaroo-court cocoons.
    I wonder if Howard ever prescribed the readings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn? Again, don’t hold your breath. At his biography reading at Barnes and Noble, I asked the Virtuous One why he completely ignores the history of his warm and fuzzy Leninist friends, and he said that he wanted to make sure the other side of the story got out since our public schools are so incompetent. So the non-private sector institution known as the public schools is an utter abomination– just shocking Howard! And what a scholar, huh? Howard will tell one side of the story because maybe some of the less educated people will stumble into the other side of the story on their own somewhere else. Yes, this is a scholar –in the universally merit-phobic socialist circles. I wish Howard were around today to further witness the FDR-Ponzi scheme coming apart at the seams. I was always hoping that Howard would answer my question, “Why has the entire world been fleeing their hell holes in a bee-line to the most conspicuously capitalist country ever devised–for over a century now to boot?” Crickets. Again, don’t hold your breath waiting for Howard Zinn to speak(alive or not).

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2011 at 2:25 pm

    Zinn vs. Pragmatism

    I would love to have taken some of Zinn’s courses, but he retired in 1998–I was barely getting ready for high school. I think he was a huge asset to modern thought, and a “whistle blower” in his own time. The FBI actually had a file on him, declaring that in the event of a “state of emergency” he could be arrested (Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, on July 30, 2010). He must have been quite a “thinker,” and made some powerful rich people nervous. I have taken Professor Keylor’s course(s)–another brilliant mind and great teacher–and while one must, of course, respect his viewpoint on the aforementioned debate, I somewhat disagree with him. Keylor states: you can’t just rely on the people…you have to rely on the rule of law, separation of powers, and an independent legal profession. I agree in that we must rely, ultimately, on the rule-of-law. However, I disagree in that the “separation of powers” and “rule of law” actually represent the people–as Zinn might call the “proletariat “–or protect them. I also feel that Professor Keylor somewhat undermines the power of “the people,” as if to say that they are not competent enough to recognize what just governance looks like? It doesn’t take a genius to see the threat lobbyists hold to our separation of powers, the unethical practices of career politicians, and the elites influence over laws that would, otherwise, benefit the interests of ordinary citizens. The gaps between classes in America may continue to grow more and more separate, and, possibly, erode in the middle. Perhaps Zinn was in favor of the same laws and separations of powers, but meant that they should be accountable to the people. What is the pragmatic approach to governance if those laws and separated powers continue to exploit without transparency or accountability? If abolitionists used the more pragmatic approach, then we might still have lingering forms of slavery in this country today. Albeit, I highly doubt Professor Keylor holds any elitist sentiments or would ever be in favor of unethical practices of governing. However, I do think he falls a tad short by faulting Zinn for holding America to higher standards. For example, if you have 500 starving people in America but only enough food to completely fill the stomachs of 250 people; and one side argues that everyone should eat (e.g. spreading out the food so that everyone eats but no one is “full”), while the other argues that since they sponsored the food only their 250 should eat, and deserve a full-stomach. The pragmatist might say well, “at least half are getting food,” while Zinn might argue “no everyone should eat!” Some would call such an all-or-nothing stance irrational or frustrating, while Zinn may have countered: perhaps, but tell that to the smiling kids who have food in their belly. Of course this argument is over ‘food’–an element most of us would agree to be a basic human right–but at some point those lines become blurry and grey. Zinn saw things much more black and white. And, while I agree with having true laws, educated individuals in society, and governance, but when that same “government” rules in favor of those whom provided the food…well, I just pray I am not on the wrong side of that 250. I bet things aren’t as “grey” when your stomach is empty, and no one listens when you speak.

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2011 at 2:31 pm

    Someone watching too much FoxNews

    When did Howard Zinn ignore the 100,000 million or so innocent people getting slaughtered? When did Howard Zinn celebrate when communists deliberately starved and tortured millions people to death? Apparently he’s judged based your personal bias. I believe Howard Zinn would be as upset on these terrible events as any persons who is compassionate for the weak and the downtrodden, regardless who were the persecutors. I also believe Howard Zinn would go to China to commiserate with the victims of the Nanking massacre if giving a chance. All Howard Zinn pointed out is — governments do bad things in the course of the history, be it Japanese government, German government, Chinese government, or American government. Pointing out the bad things, wrong things (for example, invading Iraq) our government has done (or are still being done), is not a bad thing, on the contrary, it’s truly patriotic. So to answer your question, “Why has the entire world been fleeing their hell holes in a bee-line to the most conspicuously capitalist country ever devised–for over a century now to boot?” Howard Zinn probably would say to you “Not the rich!”

  • David on 03.04.2011 at 2:32 pm

    cool story bro

    “Other than ignoring the 100 million people or so slaughtered by his Communists/Socialist friends, yes, Howard Zinn was quite the historian. ” Hmm if we’re gonna play the neolib numbers game let’s tabulate how many people were killed under capitalist dictatorships and in the name of capitalist national interests abroad. Have you ever done that? Does East Timor ring a bell? Glass houses, mein freunde, glass houses.

  • Bill Keylor on 03.04.2011 at 3:22 pm

    Addendum to panel on Howard Zinn as hisorian

    I would like to add a brief addendum to Amy Lazkowski’s excellent summary, which was selective because of the space constraints she faced, of the panel considering Howard Zinn as a historian on which I served. Her account mentioned a few aspects of the historian’s craft on which Howard and I disagreed. But I also indicated in my brief talk that Howard was a self-effacing, warm human being always eager to help out students and young scholars, and a courageous and dedicated activist in the cause of civil rights and opposition to war (before it was popular to be so). I also indicated that his People’s History of the United States presents a necessary and useful corrective to so many earlier books on American history (particularly those used in our high schools), which idealized the founding fathers, the constitution, and the "American way of life" with hardly any mention of the darker themes that occupy such an prominent place in Howard’s People’s History: Slavery, racism, the unequal treatment of women, foreign intervention, oppression of working people, etc. When I arrived as a young assistant professor at BU, I held him in awe, and continued to do so for the rest of his career at the university. The main point I wanted to make on the panel–in addition to the ones mentioned in the article– was that there is ample room in the historical profession for scholars such as Howard, who see their historical research and writing as a direct outgrowth of their political activism, and for those of us who are committed to the impossible but necessary quest to understand history "as it really happened" in the words of a now largely forgotten German scholar. Some historians choose topics for research that are not a direct extension of their political activism. They seek to understand the complexity of historical events with as open a mind as possible and then try to present as honest and objective an assessment of those historical developments as possible. "To let the chips fall where they may," as one of my friends in the profession has put it. They may be politically committed personally, as I was during the time of Howard’s career at B.U. But they try, not always successfully, to separate their own political commitments from their scholarship. To repeat: There is room for both types of historians, and Howard Zinn was the finest example of the first type that I know of.

    Bill Keylor

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2011 at 3:28 pm

    Indonesia occupying East Timor, while horrible, is a very weak attempt at moral equivalence. Many people have done the research and you will simply not find 100 million murdered by capitalist nations. “Capitalist dictatorship” is akin to saying Communist Democracy.
    Also had Zinn, may he rest in peace, chosen genuine historical research over idealogy, he would have noticed that socialism has always led to economic and social decline in any country that has adopted it. Communism killed more people in the 20th century than all previous centuries of recorded history combined. Ideas have consequences. Charity begins at home and those who have lived, worked and raised a family outside of the ivory tower know this. “The people” are all of us, not just those who love revolution for revolutions sake. The truly compassionate use their own personal resources to help the poor. Those who make speaches and demand the government show compassion with other peoples money have simply not reached moral and intellectual adulthood. Nor have they learned critical thinking skills.

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2011 at 4:06 pm

    Professor, with all due respect, those who read their idealogies back into history while ignoring primary sources, the only accurate record of history we have, like Zinn did, cross the line from history over to philosophy. I don’t see how this is a corrective to the actual rigor of studying the actual record which was actually taught in America’s past much more accurately. Was there a degree of patriotism in some of the texts? Sure. That is common in every country throughout history. Did that color the facts? Only slightly – we used to care about such things. Revisionist history that has no documented basis, disquised as actual history because an academic wrote it, is just glorified alternative history – a sub-genre of science fiction.

  • Motown Basho on 03.04.2011 at 6:13 pm

    Our Howie

    The People’s Republic of China = Capitalist Dictatorship.
    Saudi Arabia = Capitalist Dictatorship
    Pinochet’s Chile = Capitalist Dictatorship
    Apartheid South Africa = Capitalist Dictatorship
    Mubarak’s Egypt = Capitalist Dictatorship
    Marcos’ Philippines = Capitalist Dictatorship

    Sweden = Socialist Democracy.

    Equating capitalism and democracy/freedom is a favorite trope of the capitalist. It’s nonsense. Nor does such a view take into account the misery, poverty, disease and absence of basic human rights and dignity that went along with the rise of industrial capitalism. Nine-year-olds worked 14 hour shifts in cotton mills. Adolescent girls worked long shifts dragging coal cars in British coal mines. Working people, the ones whose toil produced the capitalists’ fortunes, lived in overcrowded squalor, died in their thousands in accidents and of disease and malnutrition. We, in the west, enjoy our high standard of living now because of poor sods in China & Honduras & Indonesia & Ghana who are working in the same wretched conditions for fifty cents an hour/ or day. That’s your freedom.

  • MOtown Basho on 03.04.2011 at 6:21 pm

    Our Howie

    …and while we’re at it. Stop equating everyone who wants to end the brutal excesses of capitalism with Joseph Stalin. It’s intellectually dishonest.

  • Greg on 03.04.2011 at 8:03 pm

    Can't help but thinking of Chomsky.

    When Khmer Rouge took over in Cambodia and started slaughtering innocent people by thousands, Chomsky first ignored that fact, then said it was a lie, and finally, forced to face the facts said it was US fault anyway.

    You see, there are many of those in Academia for whom belonging to some left-wing movement, no matter how murderous, makes you automatically above all the criticism, and if that movement declares itself anti-USA, it’s additional plus. It’s just like Pavlov’s dog reaction.

    I will never forget one fellow from Harvard, Irving Schick, who worked as a consultant for the company I worked as well. We happened to work in the same group. Once (it was early 90’s) we were sitting chatting and I made some negative remarks about the life in Russia. So Irving said something like this: “I don’t understand why those emigres are so critical about the Soviet Union”. The obvious answer “Because they have a first-hand experience whereas you spent your life in academic sewers glorifying brutal communist regimes” somehow didn’t come into his mind, and I didn’t feel like giving him a hint either.

  • Robin McMeeking on 03.06.2011 at 12:36 pm


    I learned of Zinn recently while researching something. I saw a video interview in which he was decrying the treatmen of Indians by the early settlers. He was clearly an influential historian so I looked further into his positions.

    When Zinn chose to write about atrocities committed against the Indians there was plenty of material to choose from. Of course, it wasn’t one sided any more than today’s conflicts. However, it seems evident that as long as Europeans were flooding to America the conflicts were inevitable. Also inevitable that the Indians would ultimately lose.

    Zinn was an “open borders” proponent. “If you don’t have a vision, for instance, of a world without national boundaries, you are not in a position to really evaluate very specific things, like should Congress pass this immigration law, or should we pass that immigration law, should we restrict immigration this much or immigration that much. But if you have that vision of the kind of world that you want, then it becomes clear what your attitude has to be towards immigration, which is people should be able to move: there shouldn’t be such a thing as a foreigner, an alien, an immigrant.”

    He was also a pacifist. What sort of advice would he have given to the Indians regarding the arriving Europeans?

  • Anonymous on 03.31.2011 at 1:15 pm

    To Lost me at “sheople”; you mean it certainly won’t “BU” that hires a contemporary conservative thinker? Because that is a statement I can believe.

  • Anonymous on 04.01.2011 at 8:18 am

    He was also a pacifist. What sort of advice would he have given to the Indians regarding the arriving Europeans?

    What you forget to mention but I gather from your thoughts is that Zinn was a hypocrite who believed in peace without guns to defend it and supporting multiculturalism without the requisite borders to define it.

    The man offered interesting ideas but he was not as insightful and I doubt his pontifications will prove to be as enduring as those who worship him would like to believe. Though reading his book will likely provide a “Zinnfully” delicious foray into a past wherein everyone deserves respect and credit expect those few men who sacrificed their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to create a nation wherein the laws of nature and Nature’s God are the supreme governing force.

  • David H. Rice on 01.01.2013 at 1:26 am

    I took my AB and am at B.U. In the process, I was most fortunate to have Howard Zinn as a teacher of two courses. I thought him then the smartest man I had ever met–and still do. To talk to him was a revelation–he engaged with whoever was speaking with passion and compassion–driving those he spoke with to THINK! And think HARD. His memory is forever embedded in mine…

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