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There is a larger problem with Zinn’s work that neither Duberman nor, to my knowledge, any other critics have mentioned. As a boy Zinn was a fan of radio shows like The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, and The Shadow, and he played hooky to go to movies and Brooklyn Dodgers games. Yet there is no reference in A People’s History to the pursuit of leisure, pleasure, and fun, to which the American working class has devoted far more of its time, energy, and money than it has to explicitly political activities.
Zinn claimed to place workers and their struggles at the center of his narrative, but he ignored the workers of the early industrial revolution who refused to obey factory discipline by drinking on the job and disregarding work schedules. His account of slavery is filled with whippings and rebellions, but nothing is said of the slaves’ leisure activities or comparatively relaxed attitudes toward work and sex. Even the slaves’ and their descendants’ enduring contributions to American music, a music that has meant freedom and pleasure to the people Zinn purports to understand, does not rate a mention.
Zinn tells of the organized movement for women’s suffrage but does not mention the legions of prostitutes in the 19th century who won many of the freedoms women now take for granted, from high wages to ownership of property to the ability to walk in public without a male chaperone. Crime, in particular the small-time street crime that was always part of the fabric of ordinary people’s lives, and which counterintuitively enlarged so many of our freedoms, does not make the cut as “relevant” history. Nor is there a single mention of consensual sex, which undoubtedly was a central part of the lives of Zinn’s “people.”
Zinn’s shortcomings—especially his unconscious Puritanism—are shared by much of today’s left. But the world would change for the better if his commitment to fight the power no matter who holds it again became part of what it means to be a leftist.