Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: History, Media, Politics — Rick Moran @ 10:20 am

I note with some disappointment the reaction of many conservatives to the History Channel’s broadcast of The People Speak,, a project brought to us by the radical professor of political science, Howard Zinn.

Referring to Zinn as an “historian” is something of a misnomer. Rather, he uses his research into history to advance a personal, political, far left agenda. In other words, scholarship takes a back seat to politics.

Is he “anti-American?” Zinn, much more than most on the left, is dissatisfied with America not only as she has turned out, but even as she was conceived. His decidedly deterministic and Marxist interpretation of history sees the “revolution” as a gigantic trick played upon ordinary people, substituting British tyranny, for the merchant and manufacturer tyranny of the upper class that was homegrown. This makes him “anti-American” in the sense that he hates even America’s founding.

So yeah, he’s one of the few Americans that I would have little hesitation in referring to as “anti-American.”

But Zinn has also done this country - inadvertently - an enormous service. His book A People’s History of the United States popularized social history in a way that more academic social historians have never been able to do. There have been a few social histories of the United States that found favor with the public. David Hackett Fisher’s Albion Seed which told the story of the migrations to early America was a best seller. My personal favorite is a trilogy by the former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin simply called The Americans.

But Zinn’s one volume People’s History is riveting reading and is used as a textbook in some high schools and many colleges today. Zinn gets in your face and forces you to see the underside of America that is just as real, just as compelling as any patriot’s story you are likely to read. It is full of angry people telling their stories, indicting America for its many sins against Native Americans, women, blacks, and unionists.

Yes, this is “real” history and deserves as much of an airing as any narrative history that reveals the sunny side of our past. The reason is “perception.” Good history - popular history - always has a point of view. Events are revealed according to the biases, both conscious and unconscious, of the historian. There is the danger - one that Zinn tumbles into - that the historian will become too emotionally involved with the subject matter and begin to make decisions that de-objectify the narrative. But good historians writing good history overcome this prejudice by thoughtful scholarship and not romanticizing or demonizing their subject. Conclusions are drawn carefully, and not without a bellyfull of primary source material that leads the reader to draw conclusions almost naturally, without much help from the author.

Zinn lets ordinary Americans reveal his point of view while structuring his narrative for maximum emotional impact. It is a damned effective technique although one should question how “scholarly” this approach might be.

An honest assessment then, would give these ordinary Americans directly affected by slavery, Jim Crow, second class citizenship for women, cultural genocide of Native Americans, and the government’s resistance to the formation of unions their voice and an equal place in our national storybook. Their words reflect their personal perceptions - their real life experiences - with oppression.

It is hard for some of us to acknowledge the fact that the glowing words and idealism found in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution didn’t mean squat to a very large number of our fellow Americans for a very long time. This is the way it was, and still is in some respects, which is why it is vital that we listen to what they have to say and acknowledge that we have often fallen short in making our ideals a reality for all Americans.

There is no shame in this. Indeed, I celebrate the fact that it is part of our exceptional nature that if we fight hard enough, and long enough, we can change the very nature of our society, something that is an impossibility just about anywhere else on earth. It is this revolutionary spark that is nurtured by books like A People’s History of the United States, even if its author is an anti-American, Marxist loon.

The History Channel would have done well to limit the scope of this project. It appears from their website that they have not. Wandering off into subjects that are clearly the personal pet peeves of Zinn would seem to make The People Speak almost unwatchable.

Case in point, this segment on the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line in the winter of 1781. The narration leading up to a description by a Continental soldier named Samuel Dewee of the execution of 5 mutineers is laughable - a travesty really. The narration is read by poet Staceyann Chin and describes the officers eating well and being clothed in fine, warm uniforms while the ordinary soldier went about in rags while being paid in “worthless Continentals,” the inflated paper money. The mutiny was a protest against soldiers not having been paid since the beginning of the war and resentment against some officers was commonplace as it is in any army.

The facts are a little different. Most officers had not been paid either. If they ate better - a highly dubious proposition - it was because there were some that received their salary in coin, dispensed by the Pennsylvania state government, and were able to purchase food from the farmers in the surrounding countryside. These were usually officers who were still carried on the rolls of the state militia. Most received nothing.

And the executions? While corporal punishment was common in every army at that time, there is no official record that anyone was executed for the mutiny. It is hard to say what Dewee was describing when he told of these executions because according to histories developed from primary source materials, no one was put to death as a result of the mutiny. A few weeks after the Pennsylvanian’s protest, some New Jersey troops tried the same thing - with much different results. Washington sicced some hard eyed Connecticut men on the New Jersians and the mutiny died in a few hours. He also executed some of the ring leaders.

The question I have is why include this little vignette at all? Are we supposed to be shocked that starving, unpaid patriots would rebel against the authorities who were the cause of their intense suffering? Matt Damon was apparently so shocked that his junior high knowledge of history prevented him from imagining the bad things that have happened in America that he wanted to share with the rest of us.

And this is my major beef with this entire project. I have seen several of the segments from the series and the whole enterprise stinks of sanctimony - as if American history of this kind is locked away in a closet guarded by CIA agents 24 hours a day. All these liberal Hollywood and artsy-fartsy types have the arrogance to think that they are revealing anything that a 5th grader couldn’t discover on his own by taking a walk to a local library or even getting on line and performing some simple minded googling.

An example is Matt Damon’s melodramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence. That document contains a list of grievances of the colonists, some of which may find an echo with both right and left today. I have no doubt this is Zinn’s doing, as the radical is constantly calling for revolution of the non-violent kind.

In fact, for Damon and some of the others who read the letters, diary and journal entries, speeches, and other media upon which the show is based, it appears that they approach the subject matter as if there has been some kind of plot to keep our inglorious past hidden from the American people. Simpletons who are exposed to critical pedagogy are usually floored when they realize that they don’t know everything. And upon receiving knowledge that overturns their assumptions, are almost evangelical in their desire to lecture the rest of us about what we don’t know.

Social history is a valuable adjunct to narrative history - the latter usually concentrating on the “Great Man” or “Great Ideas” view of our past. But social history without proper context is incomplete and this Howard Zinn project for the History Channel appears to fail miserably in providing any kind of structure that would enlighten anyone about the true nature of America and our past.


  1. Interesting post.

    It’s good to see the trees and not just the forest. But at the same time the forest is real.

    On British Men of War the sailors were typically pressed — very much against their will — and most often subjected to very harsh discipline that could include a hundred lashes. Those same British warships helped put an end to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

    History does love a paradox. I think the juvenile mind fastens on hypocrisy as though it was the only thing worth seeing. And of course ideologues almost by definition are people who are incapable of seeing nuance. The US is the greatest engine for freedom ever to exist, and the US perpetuated the cruelest sort of slavery. Both statements are true, paradoxical, but true.

    Comment by michael reynolds — 12/13/2009 @ 10:39 am

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  3. “Simpletons who are exposed to critical pedagogy are usually floored when they realize that they don’t know everything. And upon receiving knowledge that overturns their assumptions, are almost evangelical in their desire to lecture the rest of us about what we don’t know.”

    Sharpest comment I have seen in a while. It makes me think of adolescent readers of Marx or Ayn Rand, or conspiracy theorists.

    back on topic, I haven’t seen the documentary, but I am amused that there is shock, tremendous shock when it is discovered that our history is filled with both heroism and tragedy, nobility and mendacity.

    But of course, the same simpletons are simpletons for not being able to conceive that those traits, of both good and evil, are often contained within the same person; they insist on sorting all characters into cubbyholes clearly marked. Often their newfound evangelism only consists of moving character from cubbyhole “good” into cubbyhole “evil”.

    Comment by Liberty60 — 12/13/2009 @ 2:21 pm

  4. Excellent commentary.

    To me, the true worth of stories depicting the evils of the past is totally dependent upon the stories being good guidance for the present and future. Why should we dwell on the terrible events of the past if they have little or no bearing on now? If the lesson is that men can be very, very evil, that is so well-known as to be totally trite. If the lesson is that America is not perfect, and has not been perfect since inception, what is new about that? Enumerating the sins of the past does not (or should not) alter the perception of America as a great nation.

    We should be looking under all the rocks for today’s evil practices instead of weeping, wailing and knashing our teeth about the inequities of times past. There is nothing to be done about them now!

    Comment by mannning — 12/13/2009 @ 4:36 pm

  5. “Stinks of sanctimony” is a perfect description of this history of Zinn’s and the left in general. We saw that same stink in that stupid pledge those celebrities (most of whom I couldn’t say who they were) made a year ago.
    I happen to like Columbus; he brought hope and change to the new world. I like Custer too,even though he did on one occasion have some of his soldiers flogged. Zinn is not likely to change my mind about them or anyone else in history. But others are sure to buy into his story.
    It seems that the principle criterion for the telling of history is that it must be flattering. That is why Zinn’s history rubs many Americans so wrongly and why, if you’re a sanctimonious leftist pedantic or a member of a certified victim group, it is so embraceable.

    Comment by Patrick Of Atlantis — 12/13/2009 @ 5:07 pm

  6. “And this is my major beef with this entire project.”

    If your major beef with the project is that Matt Damon is an idiot, consider yourself lucky.

    (just kidding)

    Comment by busboy33 — 12/13/2009 @ 6:06 pm

  7. Hey Liberty60, must be ur age! You are a simpleton! And MD is a communist! well that was SIMPLE!

    Comment by thiacyn — 12/13/2009 @ 9:17 pm

  8. I read Zinn’s book and came away with the impression that I just learned American history at the office water cooler. Zinn’s book was like listening to all the bitchers and whiners in the office who have all the answers if only someone would listen to them. The “ONE” that every office has, who was/were victims before being a victim was cool. It struck me as a collection of malcontents who never understood that to wrest benefits from Godless capitalists requires said capitalists are first available and profitable and thus, able to be plundered.

    I try to imagine that better place that Zinn must believe is available, is out there, somewhere. What and where is the better, more fair, model that the U.S. should be emulating? The cruel fact for a malcontent like Zinn is that if he was practicing his special brand of enlightened grievance mongering anywhere else except the west, he and his ilk would be anonymous and quite possibly rotting in some dank, damp, dark, prison out of earshot of the masses. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that is what makes the U.S.A. stronger and better than those “other countries;” but I still like the imagery.

    Comment by Tyranno — 12/13/2009 @ 10:20 pm

  9. Did you really watch it? I ask that honestly.

    Comment by obamathered — 12/14/2009 @ 12:02 am

  10. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 12/14/2009, at The Unreligious Right

    Comment by UNRR — 12/14/2009 @ 5:12 am

  11. Zinn is definitely biased because he is anti-corporate.

    But be honest and admit the overwhelming, massive bias that is far more pervasive is the America is Great narrative.

    This is just as biased and just as wrong. But it is the rule in our textbooks and of course in our media.

    Anybody who challenges American exceptionalism is a ‘hater.’ All peoples, countries, tribes believe themselves special and destined for greatness. This is equally terrible a mistake to make as ‘America is uniquely bad.’

    Comment by magoo — 12/14/2009 @ 10:16 am

  12. “…and the US perpetuated the cruelest sort of slavery.”
    As compared to who? The Arabs? The Romans? The Greeks? The Brazilians?
    Where did you get the idea that American slavery was particularly cruel - your Marxist school teachers? Reality check. Was the voyage across the Middle Passage worse the slave caravans across the Sahara? The only thing that makes America look bad is in contrast to standards that America set. It took awhile for us to live up to our own high ideals, not that we didn’t live up to some international standard. And then there is the “silver lining”, this country may piss me off mightily some times; but as a black man, I’m glad I’m on this side of the ocean!

    As for the Native Americans, what would one assume would be the outcome between a Stone Age culture and an industrialized one? Should we have left this country a howling wilderness to placate a bunch of savages. When has that worked? Angle-Saxons feel bad about pushing out the Native Americans, should they return to the forests of Germany where they originated? Groups of Native Americans had pushed out other groups of Native Americans.

    As for our “second class” treatment of women, take a gander at how they are still being treated in most of the rest of the world. Burka clad Arab women, for example.

    Zinn “history” is the usual leftist dreck, in which the US is tried and found guilty of lack of perfection. Yes, we have faults - but at least we try to do something about them. And we don’t need to be constantly reminded of those faults as opposed to being praised for the ones we’ve tried to correct.

    Comment by Mike Giles — 12/14/2009 @ 10:26 am

  13. It was the worst thing you can say about a presentation like this - absolutely boring! Seriously - it’s a good thing I have a timer on my TV. I dozed off halfway through (maybe sooner - I’m old and my memory bites).

    In the meantime, Merry Christmas to All of you and Happy Hanukah to all as well. I made latkes yesterday just for the sheer bloody fun of it and mandelbrot as well. I figure anything that is that much work is suitable for holidays only!

    Comment by Gayle Miller — 12/14/2009 @ 11:00 am

  14. I liked some of The People’s History. but remain annoyed at Springsteen’s painful Woody Gutherie pose. I’m sure he admires Gutherie, but until he significantly reduces ticket prices, his socialist cred remains suspect. Power to the People at $100 bucks a pop? I’m skeptical.

    Comment by kreiz — 12/14/2009 @ 3:48 pm

  15. [...] Read the whole thing at Rick Moran’s Right Wing Nut House. [...]

    Pingback by Rick Moran: “In Defense of Zinn – Sort of” | NewsReal Blog — 12/14/2009 @ 9:01 pm

  16. I actually caught “the people speak” last night and could not finish watching it. It was that horrible. Watching these actors trying to act like American patriots was pathetic, espeically since I knew everything they were saying was complete bias propaganda. The program was meant for the historically challenged. If howard zinn advocates that there is no such thing as a fact then I say 9/11 was a inside job. Obama said: Words Matter. So, we should make them live up to what they preach. Otherwise slogans such as “9/11 was inside job” become the reality.

    As for howard zinn’s book “A people’s history of the untied states of America” unfortunately there are too many absences of footnotes to sources.

    Other problems with his book include….

    - There was no “Spain” in 1492, there was Castilla and Aragon (with separate Queen and King respectively, although they were married).
    - The Court of the Crown of Castilla wasn’t in Madrid until 1561 (it was in Toledo by that time).
    - It is not exact that Hernan Cortes turned Aztec against Aztec, but the tribes that were being slaughtered by the Aztecs.

    The problem with Zinn’s view is his dismissal of historical context. He presents the United States as a criminal state and provides us with a list of its crimes.

    The question is, Are these crimes what is “distinctive” about the United States? Of course there are awful things this country has done, and Americans should certainly know about them, but for the most part the awful things we have done are not novel. How many societies have been hostile to “the other”? How many societies have kept the territory they have won in military engagements? How many societies have condoned slavery and sexual inequality? In how many societies has greed been a major human motivation?

    The short answer to these questions? “All of them.”

    Yes, there are some areas in which I think we do poorly in comparison to other societies in our respect for education and for our cultural heritage, in remembering to value the life of the mind and aesthetic appreciation, but Zinn doesn’t have all that much to say about our actual weaknesses.

    What is different about the United States is the way we have defended, through a long and sometimes bloody series of struggles, liberty and universal equality under the law. Surely there have been many evil Americans, which (given human nature) is not a surprise, but on balance we have been an unprecedented force for good in the world.

    The myth that Native Americans were saintly innocents has been debunked very thoroughly by both historians and anthropologists. This of course does not excuse the behavior of Europeans, which was sometimes evil, but the idea that Europeans were “especially” vicious can be maintained only by ignoring the history of other peoples.

    On the other hand, European civilization has contributed greatly to the welfare of the world. Since the Industrial Revolution, global life expectancy has increased dramatically, as has global wealth and the quality of global health. You should also remember that slavery was a global phenomenon “throughout history” until Europeans (primarily by means of the British Navy) decided they had a moral duty to end it.

    The non-Western countries that have benefited the most have been the ones that have adopted free markets and representative democracy. (And much of the non-Western world “has” asked for democracy and “does” value it.) The non-Western countries that have lagged have generally been the ones that have adopted radical leftist ideologies. If all the nonsense about capitalist “exploitation” were true, then the “exploited” capitalist countries would be poor and the countries that adopted Zinn’s favored model (anti-capitalist, “anti-imperialist”) would have prospered. This is decidedly “not” the case.

    However, I will give him credit as he says quite openly that he has no desire to write objectively. Here he is in his own words: “From the start of my teaching and writing, I had no illusions about “objectivity”, if that meant avoiding a point of view. I knew that a historian (or a journalist, or any one telling a story) was forced to choose, from an infinite number of facts, what to present, what to omit. And that decision inevitably would reflect, whether consciously or not, the interests of the historian.”

    Zinn aims to advance his ideology and his “interests,” not to give a balanced depiction of historical reality. In effect, Zinn is a liar, and a liar who defends ideas that have produced almost nothing outside of mass misery and mass murder.

    If your looking for good counter books to Zinn’s nonsense this hoilday season I suggest reading: Paul Johnson’s “A History of the American People” and Larry Schweikart’s “A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror.” One other book I would suggest reading is
    “48 Liberal Lies About American History”.

    Perpare yourselves for the progressive propaganda now that Obama is president it will be coming at you ferociously. Even the history channel has sold out.

    Comment by ZAC D. — 12/15/2009 @ 3:23 am

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