The Left's Blind Spottags: Howard Zinn, A People's History, Rick Shenkman, New York Times, The Left
Rick Shenkman is the author of "Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter" (Basic Books, June 2008), an associate professor of history at George Mason University and publisher and editor-in-chief of the History News Network.
Let's start with Howard Zinn and then move on.
Zinn, rather unlikely for a historian, has been feted like a Hollywood celebrity, receiving encomiums from stars like Danny Glover, James Earl Jones, and of course, Matt Damon, whose character in Good Will Hunting famously brandishes a copy of Zinn's A People's History of the United States during a raucus encounter with Robin Williams. In 2003 a large crowd turned out at a celebration in Manhattan at the 92nd Street Y to mark the sale of the one millionth copy of the book. Recently, there was even a television series built around the book's themes.
Why is Zinn so popular (with the general public, if not with historians, many of whom have expressed reservations about his books)? The answer is that Zinn plays the role in a self-satisfied often-uncritical mainstream culture of the seemingly attractive dangerous rebel. "If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States," Damon exclaims in the movie. "That book will knock you on your ass."
But just how dangerous is Zinn? Like many left-wingers he regularly calls attention to a long list of crimes American officials have committed against various groups and countries while celebrating the virtues of ordinary folks. But what he doesn't do is admit the obvious: that the ordinary people he is so eager to lionize have often turned a blind eye to what their government's leaders through the years have done in their name.
That the people's responsibility for our foreign policy choices is seldom mentioned is strange. For many years now it has been a staple of the left-wing approach to history to draw attention to the people operating at the grassroots. History faculties, dominated by liberals at most schools, now include few professors who even care to do research into the papers of political leaders. The fashion instead is to do social and cultural history where the emphasis is on the masses. And yet in the context of foreign policy debates public opinion is relegated to the shadows, as if it were almost irrelevant.
Flip open A People’s History almost anywhere and what you are likely to find is a relentless focus, in all cases where the United States acted badly in Zinn’s view, on our leaders. Consulting the index, I looked up Iran, which figures prominently in left-wing indictments of America. There on page 430 is the story of the CIA’s coup against Mossadegh: “In Iran, in 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency succeeded in overthrowing a government which nationalized the oil industry.” On this same page there are attacks on the Marshall Plan, criticisms of the invasions of Latin America, and even a denunciation of the Alliance for Progress. It is the standard left-wing laundry list of postwar American crimes, follies and hypocrisies:
Zinn’s chief theme in the book’s chapters on foreign affairs is that the United States has played the role of a bully on the world stage and has frequently done so at the behest of our corporations. Our leaders’ idealistic talk? So much claptrap. Dig a little, Zinn recommends, and what you find is that these leaders approved nefarious policies at odds with basic assumptions about America’s stated commitment to human rights.
Our concern here is not with the content of Zinn’s indictment. He may be right or he may be wrong. (I think he is right in some cases and dead wrong in others.) The concern at hand is rather with what he has not said than with what he has. And what he has not said is that the American people are associated with the policies to which he objects.
Indeed, it is the peculiar practice of Zinn to put The People front and center in his narrative only when they are doing good as he defines good. When The People are doing bad things -- as when they are allowing their leaders to adopt unsavory foreign policies -- they are largely invisible. The narrative subtext that runs throughout his book can be summed up this way. Leaders bad, ordinary people good. Or rather, white leaders bad, ordinary people good.
Not that The People are infallible. But in Zinn’s accounts he hastens always to indicate that their mistakes are owing to their manipulation by elites. In the notorious case of Vietnam, for example, he notes that LBJ “used a murky set of events in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam, to launch full-scale war.” That ordinary people allowed themselves to be bamboozled by the president doesn’t occur to Zinn. I do not mean to suggest that ordinary people should have been able to pierce through LBJ’s lies -- and they were lies, as we now know -- about the events that transpired in the Tonkin Gulf. But their attitude was passive. Whatever the president said they believed. This was not LBJ’s fault. This was their fault.
In Zinn’s narrative of the Vietnam War ordinary people do eventually surface as noble actors in a movement of popular resistance. “Early in the war,” he writes,
there had been two separate incidents, barely noticed by most Americans. On November 2, 1965, in front of the Pentagon in Washington, as thousands of employees were streaming out of the building in the late afternoon, Norman Morrison, a thirty-two year old pacifist, father of three, stood below the third-floor window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, doused himself with kerosene, and set himself afire, giving up his life in protest against the war. Also that year, in Detroit, an eighty-two-year-old woman named Alice Herz burned herself to death to make a statement against the horror of Indochina.
A “remarkable change” then took place, says Zinn.
In early 1965, when the bombing of North Vietnam began, a hundred people gathered on the Boston Common to voice their indignation. On October 15, 1969, the number of people assembled on the Boston Common to protest the war was 100,000. Perhaps 2 million people across the nation gathered that day in towns and villages that had never seen an antiwar meeting.
Zinn’s purpose is to correct the imbalance he sees in other books which neglect the activities of The People altogether. And to this extent his book is useful. It opens one’s eyes to a largely -- or once largely -- neglected aspect of history. But it leaves its readers unprepared. Framing history as a battle between malevolent elites and darling ordinary people is too limiting. History encompasses a broader range. There is about Zinn’s approach a kind of arch determinism that finds in the messy details of history a pattern of great simplicity. On its face this is suspect.
More to the point of this chapter, Zinn’s approach is self-contradictory. Many of the people who serve in top government posts have themselves emerged from the masses. When in their evolution should we therefore begin to say that they have made the transition from a blessed state of innocence to the ranks of the damned? Take Lincoln. In his years as a callow youth and unimportant political figure he fits Zinn’s ideal, one supposes. As a young soldier in a state militia he whiles away the time fighting a losing battle with mosquitoes, apparently indifferent to medals and the lure of military valor. Later in his single term in Congress he opposes President Polk’s war of aggression in Mexico. But he is already on the road to compromise with power. Unlike, says Zinn, the fiery Ohio antislavery orator, Congressman Joshua Giddings, Lincoln decides “he would not try to end the war by stopping funds for men and supplies.” By the time Lincoln is elected president he has become a sell-out: The war is not between two peoples, northerners versus southerners as most books declare. It is a war between elites. “The northern elite wanted economic expansion -- free land, free labor, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The slave interests opposed all that.” Lincoln is the chosen representative of the northern elite. At first, he refuses even to commit the country to the abolition of slavery. But then “casualties mounted, desperation to win heightened, and the criticism of the abolitionists threatened to unravel the tattered [Republican] coalition.” Lincoln, in response to the pressure, finally moves left and commits the country to a policy of emancipation. Zinn quotes Wendell Phillips, who said that if Lincoln was able to grow as president “it is because we have watered him.”
One would think that readers would see through Zinn’s approach. But the book keeps selling like hotcakes. But why is it the object of such affection? One reason is that we have a soft spot in our hearts as Americans for the thirties and Zinn’s book is very much a product of the thirties. Reading his book is like stepping into a Frank Capra movie where The People battle the Bosses for control of Small Town USA. If his book were a painting it would look like those magnificent murals from the thirties that adorn the ceiling of the lobby of Rockefeller Center, the ones depicting Heroic Working People Confronting the Forces of Nature and Capitalism. But the chief reason his book sells -- and I say this in the full knowledge that my observation will be greeted with some astonishment -- is because Howard Zinn, self-described radical, has tapped into the hoary myth that suffuses The People in an almost divine burst of sunlight. That is, Zinn, the debunker of American myths, appeals not despite the classic American myth that underlies his approach, but because of it. Try as he does to escape from American assumptions to present something fresh he is actually beholden to one of the oldest assumptions there is.
Lest it be thought that I am picking on Mr. Zinn, let me hasten to add that the list of left-wingers who share his rosy assumption about The People is long and distinguished. It includes many writers and scholars whose work I have been privileged to publish at the History News Network. But rather than get into the business of naming names, I prefer to broaden the indictment. Our problem is not that certain left-wing writers have let the public off the hook, it is that left-wing readers have. The writers can write what they will. The trouble is that their readers have not called into question the assumptions the writers have been making.
Take as an example one of the familiar arguments made during the debate about the Iraq War. It was summed up by a handy photograph that surfaced on the eve of the war and was quickly distributed widely. The picture showed Saddam Hussein, Iraqi dictator, shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld, when he was serving as an American envoy of President Reagan in the early 1980s. The Left loved the photograph. Here was powerful visual evidence of the complicated and hypocritical history of the United States in Iraq. Contrary to President George W. Bush’s assertion that Saddam was a wily dictator so heinous we had to drop bombs on him, the picture suggested that he was a man with whom we could do business, as the diplomats say. But left-wingers failed to extend the argument as they properly should have to include the responsibility of ordinary Americans for our friendship with Saddam. It is the absence of an argument then that is at issue rather than the argument that was made. To be sure Rumsfeld was a hypocrite, shamelessly capable of pirouetting from support to hostility in an instant, as circumstances dictated, without regard to questions of morality. But was not the American public’s shameless switch also of interest? It is a peculiarity of our culture and the inadequacy of the Left’s approach that we could acknowledge Rumsfeld’s hypocrisy but not our own.
The failure is not universal. In “A Problem from Hell”: America in the Age of Genocide, which appeared in 2002, the sympathetic, intelligent and articulate leftist Samantha Power clearly writes of the American public’s complicity or at the least indifference to Saddam’s many crimes against humanity. By the end of her book it seems almost incredible that Americans have greeted revelations of genocide with apathy. Recounting the story of the 1988 gassing of the Kurds at Halabja, which President Bush used as Exhibit A in his indictment of Saddam’s evil rule, Power movingly shows how our indifference cost lives:
"It was different from the other bombs," one witness remembered. "There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire."
The official reaction of the American government at the time was embarrassingly weak. First the government downplayed the reports of the attack attributing them to suspect Iranian accounts. Then when the evidence mounted and became undeniable official spokespersons like Marlin Fitzwater denounced Saddam’s use of gas but not the attack itself. As Power observes, "The United States issued no threats or demands." Furthermore, a State Department spokesman muddied the waters by suggesting that both Iran and Iraq had possibly used gas.
This terrible record cast a shadow over the leadership of the American government and obviously is further evidence of the hypocrisy of leaders like Rumsfeld. But it also suggests that Americans themselves were uninterested in the attack. The broad outline of what happened in Halabja was known. Our response as a country to the news of the attack was known. But by choice, both our leaders and our people preferred to respond -- maybe this is too harsh -- with a yawn.
Power herself indicts the public along with its leaders for their insouciance. She claims convincingly that the public responded apathetically time and again in the twentieth century to the most horrendous reports of man’s inhumanity to man, beginning with the Armenian Genocide, the century’s first. But if that is the case why did leftists reviewing the volume not focus their ire on public opinion? Why did the New York Times book review, written by an editor at the liberal American Prospect, carry the headline, “Turning a Blind Eye/A human rights expert surveys a century of American policy toward mass killings,” as if the problem were with our leaders’ policy and not ourselves, and then devote not a single sentence out of 1,341 words to the question of the American public’s culpability?
Curious to see if the Times’s review was representative, I checked the website of The Nation, the country’s leading left-wing publication, for comparison. In its 4,000 word review the public’s responsibility is alluded to just once. Admittedly it is easier to indict specific policymakers than it is to survey the response -- or non-response, as it were -- of the general public. But the conclusion I drew and I do not think it is an unreasonable one is that the Left is bored with the theme of democratic weakness. The public’s indifference is now so taken for granted on the Left that few seize the opportunity to comment on it.
The result is that all sorts of rather incomplete statements parading as serious arguments have been advanced and accepted. The arguments are not so much wrong as they are inadequate, the propounders of the arguments unwilling to follow their premises to their logical conclusion, as if they were traveling along a speedy highway and suddenly decided to draw to a dead stop even though they had yet to reach their destination. Where they were going had seemed plain enough. But why on earth they had ceased to go forward no one bothers to say.
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Jim Miller - 8/28/2008
I'm watching a program on the History Channel right now about the US Presidents. http://www.history.com/shows.do?action=detail&episodeId=173113
Regarding Clinton and his impeachment, the synopsis did not mention that he was impeached for purjury, but it did go on to suggest that as a result of The People being interested in Bill Clinton's sex life that Osama bin Laden was allowed to rise to power. A similar type of allegation was hinted at in the movie "Blood Diamond", in which the impeachment of President Clinton was "put in perspective" by one of the protagonists pointing out that everybody in America is more interested in Clinton's sex life than they are in mass murder.
The message that can be gleaned from this sort of stuff is that when a Democrat is caught doing something stupid it is "The People" who are being irresponsible by directing their attention toward what liberal pundits deem trivial.
Rodney Huff - 6/11/2008
Back to Zinn: I think if Zinn had a romantic view of the people, he wouldn't feel compelled to put the people on alert with his books. A romanticized people, I would think, would already be on alert. And they certainly wouldn't have listened to Bush when shortly after 9/11 he said, Go back to what you were doing, people. "Go shopping!" (Unspoken text: Don't try to figure out how and why this happened. Go back to sleep, children.)
Unfortunately, I think most people did listen. Zinn understands this. He sees the weaknesses and potential in people, so he keeps writing and speaking and prodding people to be more responsible, politically engaged citizens.
Rodney Huff - 6/11/2008
Recently, Obama was lambasted for trying to tell the truth when he talked about how people without jobs in rural Pennsylvania felt “bitter”; and how, in times of stress and economic uncertainty, people often cling to their Bibles and guns - they fall back on consoling traditions, what's familiar to them.
The criticism Obama received for his remarks, a lot of which issued from Hillary's camp, was that his comments indicated a paternalist and elitist point of view - they smacked of an unrefined Marxism implicit in the idea of "false consciousness."
But it was the truth, and Obama insisted that everyone knew it was true. It's just that no one wants to admit (especially the corporate elite) the extent to which power can be used to shape people's perceptions and opinions through control and management of the downward flow of information. (No one wants to admit that Marx was on to something when he said that the ideas of the ruling class are also the ruling ideas.)
However, I don't think there's anything paternalistic in observing how people can be misled to align against their own interests. Making this observation is dangerous to those who benefit from keeping the people (the consumers of information) in the dark about how they would be manipulated. So anyone who attempts to blow the lid off this "effect of power" (i.e., Gramsci's "hegemony") is likely to set off a firestorm of indignation.
Obama tried to raise the level of discussion above stupid, and the media and his political opponents pounced on him. He was guilty of violating the established framework of debate and, for his crime, was portrayed as elitist and "out of touch." Conservatives have so successfully framed the debate that they preclude any honest discussion of power and of how, as Steven Lukes put it, power is at its most effective when it is least observable.
For instance, how likely is it to be in the working class's “real interests” to prevent gay couples from getting married when their jobs are being outsourced as a result of free trade agreements that benefit only the corporate elite?
Q: Why isn't the trade agreement Bill Clinton signed with China, an agreement that sent many US manufacturing jobs overseas, a major issue?
A: The corporate media pays little, if any, attention to such issues. Instead, it focuses people's attention on "safer" issues - issues that are not likely to challenge corporate power and those that are more likely to divide the underlying population into a powerless, fragmented mass. Thus, the people’s attention gets diverted from public issues that affect everyone to less important issues like gay marriage. I highly doubt that the lives of the people opposed to gay marriage would change much at all if gay marriage were suddenly made legal in every state. On the other hand, free trade agreements that touch the lives of all Americans, gay and straight, hardly get mentioned in the mainstream media.
And let's not forget about the prevalence of info-tainment - the endless stream of celebrity gossip and trivial sideshows that get paraded as news. These are the oldest tricks in the power playbook: distract, divide, and conquer.
This is all old news on the Left, but we hardly ever hear politicians talk about this. Why not? Well, maybe our so-called Representatives have corporate masters they answer to before they even think about We the People. Maybe, if pressed on the issue, Obama can tell us how things really work in Washington.
Rodney Huff - 6/11/2008
That's a good question. I'm not sure why. Maybe they were afraid to tell the truth about the divide and conquer tactics used by their conservative adversaries, fearing that they’d be labeled elitist or condescending or worse—communists.
No doubt there was resistance to conservative attempts to redefine issues and dictate the terms of debate, but I think most of this resistance both during and after the Sixties was confined to academia and grassroots organizations, while many lefty politicians simply sold out or acquiesced to the Right to remain competitive. Regardless, no one on the Left seemed able to come up with a response that was both compelling and politically palatable.
HNN - 6/8/2008
I want top make just one point in response to your lengthy and stimulating response.
If Zinn and other leftists aren't romantics, why then were they so caught off guard by the reaction of white working class folks to the changes in the Sixties? It took the left a couple of decades to realize how Nixon and Reagan were beating them by exploiting racism, homophobia, etc. It took third-way Bill Clinton to find a way back in to power.
Maarja Krusten - 6/7/2008
Rick, I haven't read your book (although I did see it in the local Barnes and Noble about a week ago). I have read your blog postings and front page essays about it.
I found very interesting your point in this essay about Lincoln.
Do you the Internet age will erode romanticism about the People of the type that you describe? It certainly provides gathering places for very diverse individuals. Here on HNN, of the nonacademic individuals who once posted here, Dave Livingston and Peter Clarke both could be said to represent the People. (Neither was a government official or, as far as I can tell, a member of a leadership "elite." I don't think I ever figured out what line of work Clarke was in or had been in.)
That is one of the reasons that I never use the term the People. The two people I just mentioned (neither of whom appear to post here any longer) were very different in ideology, perspective, style of discourse and news sources to which they turned. They shared so few common characteristics, I would be hard pressed to put them in the same group anywhere, except as U.S. citizens. Having gotten glimpses into how they thought, I doubt anyone would reduce them to The People. I wouldn't. I suspect academics who study such forums in the future won't either. So in that sense, here on HNN, you're providing a valuable service by providing a small town square (I wish it attracted more comments – and more interaction among people -- than it does)..
Isn't part of the value of Internet forums the glimpses it gives into the thinking of people who in the old days would not have left many archival records behind? Yes, some citizens might have written to public figures in the past. As Jeremy Young noted this week in his blog, Rick Perlstein points to what he learned about the election of 1966 in Illinois by examining public opinion mail at the Chicago History Museum.
Yes, the blogosphere has pockets where like minded people gather to reinforce each others' beliefs. There are plenty of echo chamber sites -- or ones which don’t tolerate much variance in accepted behavior or opinion -- on the Web. But there also are community square type sites -- including online newspapers which permit reader comments -- where people with very diverse perspectives gather to post their views. There's an awful lot of data being produced about how citizens view issues, albeit by a self selecting sample. (On some sites, it seems it is the angriest people who are most prone to post.) Perhaps some of it is being archived for future researchers to study.
BTW, I notice that one of the people who posted on the Salon site about the review of your book mentioned Myers Briggs Type Indicators and what they reveal about approaches to decision making and so forth. The person posting there discusses intuitive and sensing approaches, etc. As I've noted here previously, MBTI is very useful in the insights it provides into the various ways that people process information and use it to come to conclusions.
Based on how rarely I see historians mention it, I would guess that people in the business world or in government are more likely to be familiar with MBTI (or to use it) than academics. While MBTI is not perfect, and there is room to debate its value, it is useful for understanding that there are differences in how people communicate, gather data, etc. Some people are readers, others are drawn to oral presentations. That helps in workplace situations where you have to manage people or work with task teams and so forth. It’s a useful tool which helps guard against stereotyping people.
Jonathan Rauch explains one MBTI characteristic, introversion, in a well known Internet posted essay, "Caring for Your Introvert." See
It provides some insights into why some introverts enjoy reading and also mentions a few Presidents.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/6/2008
Thank you for confirming that JFK started the war. A fact is a fact, indeed.
I would quarrel a bit with your next statement, however, because I remember people were highly critical of LBJ because he DID NOT launch a FULL-SCALE war in Vietnam, (ever, if you conisder the lack of nukes), but instead procrastinated and tried to measure every bombing strike, and got personally involved in limiting military actions, and thus escalated only gradually.
In time, he certainly escalated the troop numbers from 17,000 to something like 535,000, but I believe he did so in no small part to continue Kennedy's policy... Also, he was terrified of being bullied off the playground and looking cowardly--which would not have been the case if JFK had never launched the first 17,000.
There is no telling whether Johnson would have sent 535,000 troops if he hadn't found 17,000 there when he came to power. I suspect he would not have, if only because he was highly attuned to domestic political risks, and knew that shooting wars are not winners.
At the outset of the war Generals Eisenhower (Rep.)and Bradley(Dem.) jointly urged the president to go into it with full force or not to go at all, but I can't remember whether this advice, delivered on primetime TV, was for Kennedy or Johnson. They were right, of course, because in the long run wars always conclude faster and cost less when fought without restraint.
Louis Nelson Proyect - 6/5/2008
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.
Karl Marx, The German Ideology
Rick Shenkman - 6/5/2008
Let's go back to Truman then.
Rodney Huff - 6/4/2008
People are powerful to the extent that they are able to hold leaders in whom they have vested power accountable. So far, none of our so-called leaders has been held accountable for the 9/11 attacks. Bush, Cheney, Rice and Mueller each said repeatedly soon after 9/11 that no one could have imagined that terrorists would hijack planes and smash them into buildings. However, Paul Thompson's Terror Timeline shows that the Bush administration received numerous warnings about threats concerning hijacked airplanes from at least 14 different foreign country's intelligence agencies, including a U.S intelligence document, specially crafted for the president, entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US," shown to Bush on his ranch in August of 2001. Despite these numerous warnings, no defensive action was taken by this administration.
When the families of 9/11 victims successfully organized to pressure Bush to authorize an investigation into the attacks, something Bush was vehemently opposed to, one might have been attempted to chalk up a victory for the people. But the victory was soon amounted to a defeat, as the 9/11 Commission failed to answer many of the questions to which family members wanted answers (see the documentary 9/11: Press for Truth).
When one reads, in the beginning of the Final Report, that the Commission insists on not laying blame for the failure to prevent the attacks on anyone in particular - that everyone had somehow failed – one knows right away that the commission report is a cover up: If everyone failed, no one is responsible, no one can be held accountable.
Indeed, one is certain that the 9/11 Commission Report is a cover up when it goes on to state: "To date, the U.S. government has not been able to determine the origin of the money used for the 9/11 attacks. Ultimately the question is of little practical significance" (see Chapter 5.4). Apparently, it doesn't matter who paid for 9/11. Are we so stupid to believe this? Rick, I agree that our politics are stupid, but I hope WE aren’t as stupid as our politics.
I find it very strange that Philip Zelikow — the executive director of the 9/11 Commission who, at the recent AHA meeting, stressed the importance of not overlooking significant details in doing “microhistory” – I find it mind-boggling that he would overlook the significance of the collapse of WTC 7, the third building to collapse in Manhattan on 9/11. This collapse occurred much later than the other two, a little after 5 PM. WTC 7 wasn't even hit by a plane. Yet it fell in exactly the same manner as the other two WTC buildings, i.e., at nearly free-fall speed into its own footprint, the path of most resistance. Somehow, the 9/11 Commission Report fails to mention WTC 7 at all.
That the people have failed to hold any of our leaders accountable, that we have not gotten an honest independent investigation into the events of 9/11, that this administration is free to lie with impunity and ignore public opinion – all of this, I believe, indicates just how powerless We the People really are and just how powerful the elite decision-makers have become. It's no surprise, then, that many Americans feel powerless to effect change -- that is, if we regard the weak voting turnout for our elections as an indication of how powerful people feel.
Zinn, therefore, is right to highlight the crimes and corruption of elites as he attempts to wake ordinary people up to their civic and moral duties. If Zinn embraces a romantic vision of the people, as you claim, then he probably wouldn't feel the need to prod people to action with his corrective histories of popular resistance. If this were the case, the people would already know better.
Rodney Huff - 6/4/2008
On the other hand, when we do discover what has been done in our name, it is our civic and moral duty to address and ameliorate any wrongdoing. I think Zinn realizes this, but instead of castigating the public for not being sufficiently informed and distrustful of those in power, he seems to think he'll be more effective by shining a light on what the people need to be active against - i.e., the abuse of power by elites (the "Deciders") who are infinitely more responsible than the people for the decisions that they make, often without the people's knowledge or consent.
But then, even when "facts" about decisions do surface, we must confront the fact that acquiescence of the people is often secured by those who have the power to shape public opinion, namely, those who own or have ready access to the mass media, which often portrays events in a distorted manner and thus lead the people to wrong conclusions about what has been done in their name. The corporate owners of the mass media often achieve this feat by dispatching editors who frame public issues in terms dictated by elite interests and in ways that prevent certain questions and challenges from arising; they effectively manage public debate by steering it down certain channels, making sure that the assumptions implicit in the debate’s framework go unquestioned. (This is the third face of power about which Steven Lukes speaks in his book Power: A Radical View.)
Take for instance the “war on terror,” a subject of intense debate. This debate—played out on TV talk shows, news programs, and editorial sections of newspapers—concerns for the most part where and how the U.S. ought to fight this war. Rarely is the nebulous concept of this war ever questioned. Terror is a technique. How do you declare war on a technique? And how do you ever declare victory?
And now the war on terror has been used to justify the invasion of Iraq. But when we discovered that Saddam had no WMDs, we were told it was nevertheless imperative that we liberate the Iraqi people.
However, if we believe public opinion polls, there are now more people who disapprove the administration’s policies in Iraq than there are those who support them. The interesting thing here is that the president proudly admits to ignoring the polls. When questioned about the polls recently during a television interview, Dick Cheney reaffirmed this attitude.
So, I don’t think the obsessive attention paid to public polling is really indicative of the people's power, as you suggest in one of your comments above. At this stage in U.S. history, power is such that it is free to ignore the people.
Rodney Huff - 6/4/2008
I agree that We the People are in the end responsible for what is done in our name. But, as you acknowledge in your reply above, the problem is that much of what is done in our name is done without our knowledge or consent.
In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills writes:
We cannot assume today that people must in the last resort be governed by their own consent. Among the means of power that now prevail is the power to manage and manipulate the consent of men [and women]. That we do not know the limits of such power—and that we hope it does have limits—does not remove the fact that much power today is successfully employed without the sanction of the reason or the conscience of the obedient (pp. 40-41).
Can the American people be blamed for Truman's decision to conduct indiscriminate mass slaughter by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? This was a decision made with neither the public’s knowledge nor consent, but it was nevertheless carried out in our name.
Similarly, were the American people ever consulted before CIA operatives instigated the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953? Are the American people ever consulted before the CIA performs any covert operation?
Rodney Huff - 6/4/2008
I don't think Zinn romanticizes We the People, as you claim. In fact, he acknowledges that a group of people, once oppressed, can in turn become oppressors. He also acknowledges that the oppressed can simultaneously be oppressors. These observations, which appear at the very beginning of A People's History, don't seem to constitute a romantic vision of We the People.
Rather than romanticize ordinary people, Zinn, I believe, is calling the American people back to their civic duties, attempting to dispel what C. Wright Mills calls the “conservative mood” -- a Panglossian mood of complacency and material comfort into which many Americans relaxed immediately following WWII -- a time when we should have been at our most vigilant, since Eisenhower warned about the rise of the military-industrial complex -- and then again during the Reagan era (see Mills's book The Power Elite).
In A people's History, Zinn reminds us that progress has prevailed at various points in U.S. history precisely because We the People became sufficiently organized, took to the streets, and successfully won out over conservative elements that either defended an unjust status quo or threatened to undo the progress achieved by an earlier generation of activists. (Progress, here, means progress towards realizing the ideals on which this country was founded [e.g., equality, due process, etc.])
Maarja Krusten - 6/3/2008
Since I mentioned above that there are relatively few GS-170 historian slots that open up these days, it's only fair to mention one that just did. My comment doesn't directly fit in under Rick's article, except in the sense of letting historians who have worked only in academe know about an opportunity for expanded horizons. Also, I've been urging HNN's readers to take a nuanced look at senior executive branch officials and not to use overly broad brush strokes or a reductionist approach.
For a grade GS-14 series 170 Supervisory Historian job at the National Archives *open to all candidates* (not just those with current federal status), see overview at
with qualifications at
qualifications and evaluation factors at
A good opportunity for an historian who may be considering federal employment. Some government jobs, including many at the National Archives, are open only to current federal employees, not so this one.
Charles S Young - 6/3/2008
Dr. Shenkman is evocative in describing Zinn's writing as "like stepping into a Frank Capra movie." Further, if Zinn were a song, he'd be Woody Guthrie's "This land is your land." Shenkman goes further to say Zinn let's the public off the hook for tolerating the atrocities of its government, or even cheering them on. Zinn supposedly does this because he sees the People as sinless beings immaculately conceived "in an almost divine burst of sunlight."
While Zinn does concentrate on the malevolence of the powerful, he does not deny public responsibility -- in fact, his entire program is one of getting The People to act. Zinn writes as an activist, a pamphleteer, whose purpose is to get people TOO take responsibility. Granted, he puts it in nicer terms than saying Muncie has blood on its hands, but his work is exactly the opposite of giving the masses a pass. Getting people to act -- to take responsibility -- is implicit in every syllable he utters. Maybe, however, telling Muncie that it has the shredded skin of napalmed babies on its hands would work. Please try it and report back.
Shenkman sees in Zinn a long excuse, but I don't think that's what grass roots activists get out of his books. They get inspiration, not sedation. I think the difference comes from reading Zinn from an academic or activist point of view.
Further, while lack of knowledge should not be excused, let's not underestimate how difficult it can be to rise above mainstream discourse. When people simply do not have the information or know where to get it, they can be very slow to wiseup. And don't forget that public demands are regularly ignored, contributing to cynicism and passivity. Two-thirds of the public wants out of Iraq, yet there is no movement towards that. Why have an opinion if it makes no difference? This is not to take people off the hook, just to point out there's more to apathy than leftists soft-pedaling popular shortcomings.
That said, I think the public should hear more about its lapses. The book _What's the Matter with Kansas_ is an excellent contribution to such a mass critique. But people are not complaisant because Howard Zinn told them they are spotless.
Another point: there is great disparity in the influence wielded by a captain of industry and Joe main street. Author's like Zinn SHOULD concentrate more blame on elites, since they are more responsible, and are in a better position to change things.
I don't think Zinn's writings should be seen as the last word on the responsibilities of The People. They are an antidote to the view that common people do not participate in history. For more, we need to read another book, like Kansas.
Shenkman believes failure in recognizing the passivity of the public is a "blind spot" of the left. On the contrary, figuring out how to get people to care is the left's obsession. From a sixth-grade anti-littering campaign, to Greenpeace stunts, the fixation of every little activist group is how to get people moving. The fact that the public has responsibilities and shortcomings is so implicit it rarely needs saying.
william e vanvugt - 6/3/2008
After four visits to Vietnam with my students, and talking with many Vietnamese officials and former soldiers, one thing very clear is that JFK did NOT "start" the Vietnam War. That is a pathetically distorted view: it started with the US failed to recognize the Geneva agreements that accompanied French withdrawl, and began to support the Diem regime in the South and prevented the scheduled elections from taking place. American historians really ought not to think everything from strictly their own American perspective.
Maarja Krusten - 6/3/2008
You write that in the universities, military and diplomatic history are out of fashion. And Rick Shenkman notes that few professors care to do research in the papers of political leaders. Yet we live in an age where Internet forums provide many venues for academics to share with the public their thoughts on U.S. history and governance. I wish there were greater alignment between the former (field of specialization) and the latter (public outreach).
A friend of mine, an historian who worked first in an academic environment (as a professor and as a dean) and later for the federal government, once told me that nothing in the academic environment prepared him for how government really operates. He found that had to get up to speed by trial and error.
Richard Hewlett once noted that for some academics, “a common way of speaking about government employment is ‘selling one’s soul to the devil.’” However, Dr. Hewlett believed “we need more historians who are willing to commit themselves to a career or at least to a period of several years as government historians.” (See Hewlett, “Government History: Writing from the Inside,” in Frank C. Evans and Harold T. Pinkett, eds., Research in the Administration of Public Policy (Washington: Howard University Press, 1975)
Not every academic would want to do that. And the opportunities just aren't there for the most part. These days, tight budgets at civil and military agencies mean that the number of civil service GS-170 Historian positions of the type my friend once held (and I still do) are very few. These days, many agencies turn to contractors to handle short term assignments, instead of hiring permanent staff who immerse themselves in governmental culture. But even from outside, I believe that historians can help with civic education. One way is by linking what happens in the White House to common workplace experiences.
In some ways, a President is no different from any boss for whom any of HNN’s readers have worked. He has a public face and a private face. Citizens largely see the public face while he is in office. Historians play a role in revealing the private face as they study his administration.
In considering how a President handles risk assessment and makes decisions, I believe it helps to consider management science. That is something to which many citizens can relate, whether they work in the private or public sector, because they themselves are managers or work for people who are. It helps to cast things in terms to which they relate their own workplace experiences.
I sometimes do that in looking back on my work as a National Archives' employee with Richard Nixon's tapes and documents.
How did the White House chief of staff and the Staff Secretary handle paper flow? What information reached the President and who screened it before he saw it? Did the President prefer oral briefings? Or did he prefer to study detailed option papers? Instead of detailed overviews, did he want things boiled down to "one-pagers" of the type many busy corporate officials prefer?
Did his style of management make it easy or hard to convey to him information when the news or potential outcome was bad? Was a "shoot the messenger" syndrome present? Or was there a "reward the messenger" approach to bad news? Did he and his top officials exhibit workplace behaviors which inhibited or prevented candid discussion of what management experts Kathleen Ryan and Daniel Oestreich refer to as "undiscussables?" (See Ryan & Oestreich, DRIVING FEAR OUT OF THE WORKPLACE (1991, Rev. 1998)) Or did they encourage broad ranging discussion of options?
Did meetings stretch out beyond a point of usefulness or were they held in a crisp and efficient manner? Whom did he confide in and why? How did officials handle post-decisional reviews and lessons learned? These are issues to which I believe many working Americans can relate because they encounter some of the same challenges in their own workplaces.
Historians who have immersed themselves in the pre-decisional records of the modern Presidency understand that decision making is not as neat and tidy and bright as our high school civics books once implied to us. (At age 57, I’m of the generation which still studied “civics” and “problems of democracy” in classes of such names in high school.) Of course, not all voters do -- this isn't something they study. But I believe that historians haven't done as good a job as they might have in making governance seem less remote to citizens - in a nonpartisan manner and readily accessible language and formats.
Rick Shenkman - 6/2/2008
It is a fact that JFK started the war. It is also a fact that LBJ moved it from a defensive to an offensive war in 1965. See DERELICTION OF DUTY by McMaster.
I wrote that LBJ was responsible for launching a FULL-SCALE WAR IN VIETNAM.
This is a fact.
As for me being an apologist for JFK, as you imply. Read my books and you won't say that.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/2/2008
"LBJ used a murky set of events to launch a full-scale war in Vietnam."
Lefty historians, whether Zinn or Shenkman, always avoid the irrefutable truth that John F. Kennedy launched the Vietnam War. It was Kennedy who sent the first 17,000 U.S. troops to Vietnam, in late 1963, shortly before he was murdered. That was two and a half years after Eisenhower left office, so Ike's 450 advisors cannot be coupled with Kennedy's awful blunder, as is usually done in the same breath when the left finds it impossible to leave Kennedy's name out. The malpractice in this area is so bad many kids emerge from school today thinking Nixon was the only president during Vietnam.
Jeremy Young - 6/2/2008
Maarja, thanks for the compliment and for the comment. I agree with most of what you say, though I'd caution that those historians who post at HNN are, by and large, more interested and willing to engage with the general public than historians in general. Even being willing to post on a forum like HNN is a huge step in the right direction.
But I assure you I'm one of those historians (in-training) who are very interested in both political leaders and the followers they garner. In fact, that appears to be the subject of my nascent dissertation.
Jeremy Young - 6/2/2008
All right. Thanks for your response.
HNN - 6/2/2008
I know that it is fashionable to think that ordinary people are powerless. But compared with almost any other era, ordinary people have never had more power. Their opinions are measured almost hourly by polls that are then distributed to the country at large. They can use referendums to directly shape policy. They get to pick the nominees of the two major parties through primaries. And, of course, women and minorities have the vote.
This is not to minimize the impact of special interests on legislation drafted behind closed doors.
Clare Lois Spark - 6/2/2008
Our Editor has raised a vital question, but the problem needs to be fleshed out even further.
When I was on the radio (Pacifica) I was constantly astonished at how intelligent and thoughtful our listeners were, many of them working-class. But I think also that many of them thought that listening to a left-wing radio station was some sort of social action. What they are faced with is a culture that is irrationalist in many respects, and that provides political parties that are internally incoherent and in many respects, anti-intellectual.
Rick Shenkman has himself pointed out the lack of unity in our country. I would put at the top of the list the problem of federalism: that local constituencies control the education system that socializes children and adolescents. And in the universities, military and diplomatic history are out of fashion. Add to this the aversion to scientific thinking and critical thought in general, perpetuated in popular culture.
Finally, my main point is that "the people" (too general a category in my view) deserve better, but the particular history of our country of immigrants, nativists, and ex-slaves militates against the development of a thoughtful polity.
We are a long way from the eighteenth-century promise of a democratic republic. It is still appropriate to analyze the decision-making of our oligarchs and opinion-makers. "The people" who are deemed responsible by the Editor are structurally powerless.
HNN - 6/2/2008
In response to Jeremy's post:
Zinn has a romantic view of The People that I don't share. That's the first thing.
Second, and more importantly, I take issue with the leftist assumption that when things go wrong it's always because of some nefarious powerful interest: the media, corporations, whatever. Aren't The People ever to blame?
To me it is condescending to let The People off the hook. They are in charge. Therefore they have to take responsibility for what happens in this society.
This wasn't true a hundred years ago when The People had far less power than they do today. But now that women and minorities can vote and their views are taken seriously by pollsters and politicians alike the calculus of politics has changed.
I do not mean to imply that the media cannot also be taken to task or other large and powerful groups. But in our more democratic society they cannot be solely held responsible for what happens.
unless we come to terms with The People's limitations we can't begin to reform the system to ensure that they are better informed.
Leftists like Zinn always assume that
Maarja Krusten - 6/2/2008
Apologies for typos, right should be write, etc. I posted quickly as I was about to leave for work. I never know when someone might want to flame me (few readers post agreement with my views here so I don't take congeniality for granted here although Jeremy always has been civil to me) hence the explanation. In transit now on subway.
Maarja Krusten - 6/2/2008
Isn’t it a mistake for historians to paint both “the people” and political leaders in such broad brush terms as to reduce them to cartoonish figures? That few historians nowadays closely study political figures is evident in many of the essays I read on HNN. They rarely capture the struggles of people in government who are trying to deal with difficult challenges as events unfold. Perhaps it is because I spent so much time listening to thousands of hours of Nixon’s White House recordings, but too often, what I see written here on HNN by historians seems like history by template. In my view, this makes it harder for the writers to have mass appeal in what they right.
In his presentation to AHA this past January, Philip Zelikow argued that “For it's by digging in the details that you find out how people thought, who they got along with, how decisions were made, and when they were made.” How many historians accept that view? Hard to say. If you go to the piece Rick Shenkman posted about his presentation at
you’ll see that I was the only person to post a comment.
If you look at articles historians post here about current events, rarely do they convey a sense that “we know only what we read in the newspapers, here’s my take based on what I and other members of the public know now. Admittedly, I may be missing something here. We may gain greater insights over time as we learn more about what happened behind the scenes.” I often point to LBJ’s anguished recorded conversations during the course of the Vietnam War. These show the more nuanced view of a President that emerges when historians learn what lay behind the bland or cheerleading press releases his subordinates once issued on his behalf or the mud his opponents flung at him.
Just as political figures often come across as too remote or cartoon-like in some historical narratives, so do ordinary Americans. The same sources that provide insights into executive actions also provide interesting glimpses into how some voters felt. Presidential Libraries hold numerous letters sent to the President by ordinary citizens. These capture contemporary opinion but scholars turn to them even more rarely than they do the records that capture executive interactions.
That some scholars struggle in their interactions with “the people” also is evident on HNN. Some historians seem curiously uninterested in learning more about them, even when faced directly with questions from non-academic posters (such as some of the veterans who post here) under their articles. Many missed opportunities here and in other Internet forums in which historians gather.
“The people” are not a monolithic group, they have varying life experiences, which undergird their posted comments. Perhaps I am unusual in being interested in why people form the political stances they do. Few scholars take advantage of HNN as a forum for interacting with the individuals who comprise the American voter. Although the sample is self selecting, there are interesting insights in the comments posted here in past years by voters.
More and more, people seem to reject some messages because of their perceptions of the messenger. By that I mean not just news outlets, but also some scholars. I first encountered this type of cherry picking on HNN, when I once cited a study on which CNN had reported. A reader rejected the findings, noting, “Look at the source, it’s CNN, they never are fair to Republicans.” When I replied that CNN didn’t conduct the study, it only reported on what a third party polling organization found, the reader lapsed into silence. I very much doubt he clicked on the link I provided. I’m an Independent. I once considered myself a Republican (from 1968 to 1989) but it even with that in common with the reader, never occurred to me to look at the story on CNN the way he did.
The echo chamber is an increasing problem these days, not only for news outlets, but for historians as well. It remains to be seen how the newer, Web 2.0 generation of historians will handle the problem of insularity.
BTW, glad to see you’ve added Mark Safranski (Zenpundit) to your blog, Jeremy, good move, one which reflects well on you.
Jeremy Young - 6/2/2008
Thanks for your response. So how exactly is that different from Zinn's view? Is it Zinn's assumption that the people are always fighting on the side of justice and equality that bothers you? If he admits that they can be manipulated and often have been, but that their hearts are good nevertheless, how exactly does that differ from your view?
HNN - 6/2/2008
First, as to who might buy the book. The book is for every person who is discouraged by the low level at which our politics are conducted. Maybe that's even a majority. (Even people who don't follow the news closely are often aware they are being spun and manipulated.)
Second, I never said the people are weak and wicked. I suggest on the blog that there's a 5 part test of stupidity and unfortunately our politics often meet one or more of those tests. Politics are stupid when people are uninformed, susceptible to slogans, etc.
I have great confidence that Americans posses the moral ability to reach a solid decision when presented with the facts. The trick is getting them to pay attention. Most don't for a variety of reasons.
One on one in my experience they will grope for answers, but lacking basic facts they are like a blind man in a dark room looking for black socks, to paraphrase a famous saying.
Jeremy Young - 6/2/2008
And you've got great guts to assail the people and then expect them to buy your book anyway. I admire you for it, truly.
What I'm wondering is how exactly you conceive of "the people." I think you're saying that Zinn views the people in a sort of Le Bon fashion -- as a gullible but good-hearted crowd that is easily manipulated. I agree with your revision of that, but I'm not sure your implication that the people are simply weak and wicked is any better. What interests me is what happens when you get individual members of "the people" alone and ask them what they think about Rwanda, or segregation, or any of our infinite crimes. From your promo video, it looks like you might have done some of that (when you're not just asking them questions they don't have answers to). What have they said? Any general thoughts on this?
Stephen Kislock - 6/1/2008
I hear conversation about, American Idol, Movies, Sports. But when it comes to Politics, it's I don't know, or care.
To guage The People's interest/cupability, what percentage Vote?
One local Paper (Beaver County Times) carriers daily news about Iraq, Afghanistian. The Major [Pittsburgh]newspaper, may have only two or three a week. Forget local TV News!
Yes, The People, are Responsible for their governments actions, Very good point.