Zinging Zinn


Over at Dissent, Michael Kazin trashes the latest edition of Howard Zinn's massively popular A People's History of the United States. Writes Kazin,

Zinn's big book is quite unworthy of such fame and influence. A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?

Kazin doesn't just knock Zinn's scholarship, however. He asks and provides an interesting answer to the question, Why has the book, which was first published in 1980 and has gone to sell over a million copies in various editions, been so damn popular if it's so wrong?

Zinn fills a need shaped by our recent past. The years since 1980 have not been good ones for the American left. Three Republicans and one centrist Democrat occupied the White House; conservatives captured both houses of Congress; the phantom hope of state socialism vanished almost overnight; and progressive movements spent most of their time struggling to preserve earlier gains instead of daring to envision and fight for new ideas and programs.

In the face of such unrelenting grimness, A People's History offers a certain consolation. "The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history," writes Zinn. It uses wealth to "turn those in the 99 percent against one another" and employs war, patriotism, and the National Guard to "absorb and divert" the occasional rebellion. So "the people" can never really win, unless and until they make a revolution. But they can comprehend the evil of this four-hundred-year-old order, and that knowledge will, to an extent, set them free.

Whole thing here.

[Link via Arts & Letters Daily]

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  1. Micheal Kazin’s overview of “People’s History” accurately deals with the shortcomings of the book.

    One reason that “People’s History” sells so well is that many college and even high school teachers require it for their classes. I run a bookshop so I get requests for it regularly. Currently I stock remainedered copies of the previous edition, so that neither Zinn nor Rupert Murdoch make money from my sales.

    It is interesting that Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins is the pubisher. Of course it had been published by Harper & Row before Murdoch bought the company. But Murdoch also publishes Isabel Allende and other left-wing publishers. This is a tribute to commerce above politics or, perhaps, Rupert Murdoch really is a secret agent of Red China.

  2. I think Zinn, Chromski et al are purveyors of Dungeons&Dragons for intellectual wanna-bes. Instead of pretending to be dwarves and hobbits running around fighting dragons, Zinn’s fans pretend to be heroic rebels against the evil capitalist horror that is America. At any minute the minions of the dark lord BushHitler could kick in the doors of the fair trade coffee house and drag them off to unknown fate.

    Its all very exciting and no one gets hurt (well, nobody on their side of the planet any way) and the injection of fatuous self importance gives a much needed boost to their self-esteem.

  3. Hey! I very much resent the comparison between Chomsky and D&D players!

    No, I’m not a Chomskyite. I’m a former D&D player. I may have found other hobbies, but deep inside I’m still an elven thief with secrets to hide, searching for treasure in dark dungeons ruled by evil cults! Don’t go comparing me with Chomsky!

    And somehow I doubt I’m the only person on this forum who would take umbrage at that comparison. Tread lightly, or you may find legions of disgruntled posters coming at you, rolling 20-sided dice as they wield their swords, war hammers, spells, wands, etc.

    As an aside, among my friends who have played D&D in the past, there’s a strong current of libertarian sympathy. Yes, yes, I know, the purists could tear them to shreds in a heartbeat, but a general distrust of authority seems to pervade them, plus some technophilia.

  4. From the article:

    “Matt Damon, playing a working-class wunderkind in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, quoted from Zinn’s book to show up an arrogant Harvard boy (and impress a Harvard girl).”

    Not quite. Zinn’s magnum ignoramus was actually plugged during a therapy session involving Damon and Robin Williams, in which Damon touts the book’s superiority relative to the ones on Williams’ bookshelf. Williams, staying true to the film’s intellectual-lite spirit, responds by touting Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.

  5. P.S. Lest anybody question my libertarian credentials, I have a Ring of Protection from Police +5, a Cloak of Income Invisibility that makes money invisible to tax collectors, and a Sword of the Randians that’s +3 against secret police.

  6. ken…

    firstly, we’d all be in camps for being bourgeois oppressors, or else we’d be shought like kulaks…

    no good options

  7. Zinn’s book is popular for much the same reason any un-falsifiable system of thought is popular. Once you think your way into it, you can’t think your way out. The average person doesn’t pay terribly much attention to basic logic.

    Naturally, any social movement that isn’t the revolution is postponing the revolution. Once you realize that, you can stop worrying and love the bomb.

  8. I’ve found that, ideology aside, “A People’s History…” does have value as a (cautiously administered) antidote to the fairy tale history classes I was subjected to in junior high and high school. The bits which aren’t factually controversial (Columbus being a great sailor and really big asshole at the same time) are obviously the most valuable.

    I disagree with Chomsky on a lot of issues, but “Manufacturing Consent” struck me as thoroughly researched and well-argued. Same with “Deterring Democracy.” I’d appreciate any factual critiques of these works that avoid the typical personal attacks. Thanks in advance.

  9. “…our tax system isn’t so progressive…”


    The payroll tax (FICA) is about as regressive a tax as they come, since it as a TAX masqurading as a pension contribution. However the “benefits” of (FICA), Social Security retirement payments, flow disproportionately to “us middle class to not-quite-rich folks” plus some genuinely rich folks. Of course that is only true of “The Greatest Generation”. Baby Boomers and Gen-X will be shorthchanged while Gen-Whatever is Shit out of Luck.

  10. masqurading = masquerading

  11. Let’s go cray and throw some statistics into the mix.

    I went to the IRS site and found that all the relevent statistics are in Excel format; a link to that probably won’t be much help. But here’s a link that has all the same data in HTML:


    Unfortunately, the most recent data the IRS (and thus the linked site) has available goes only through 2001.

    In 2001, the top 1% of taxpayers, which is here defined as people with over $292,913 in income, paid 33.9% of all tax receipts. When you throw in the people making over $127,904, the upper 5% in terms of income, they pay 53.3% of all income taxes.

    Did I mention that they only make up 5% of households? Yes I did!

    The upper 25%, those that make more than the mighty sum of $56,085, paid a whopping 82.9% of all tax receipts in 2001. (There you go Mo!)

    So, if the left is in such a big retreat, why is it that the rich, who benefit the least from government services, have to pay through the nose?

    Most telling of all, perhaps, there’s this little diddy. Take a look at the table titled, “Total Income Tax Shares (Percentage of federal income tax collections paid by each group)” and see what the “Top 1%” paid in 2001 versus what they were paying in 1980.

    The top 1% were paying 19.05% of total tax receipts in 1980 and the proportion of total tax receipts they paid increased through the Reagan years. As I’ve already stated, they accouted for a whopping 33.9% of income tax receipts in 2001.

    Now I know there are all kinds of statistical problems with comparing tax data from 2001 with tax data from 1980. I don’t know how they handled inflation, etc., etc. But most of you will agree that there are more people in the top 1% now than there were in 1980, not the other way around. So, theoretically, this group should be more powerful politicaly than they were, rather than less.

    If they had any political power at all, this is the area they would use it in. Apparently, I conclude, they don’t have much power.

    I would suggest to you all, that the fact that the wealthy pay such a disproportionate share of the income taxes is, probably, the single most under-reported fact.


  12. Oh no, Ken. Are the rich going to stop achieving now?

    The progressive tax is a sham. It gives the appearance of equalizing wealth, thus creating a complacency among the working class. In reality it is nothing more than trickle up economics.

    It’s like calling an animal ranch an unfair tax scheme because the rancher pays for the infrastructure and feeding of all the lazy parasite hogs and cows! Nevermind that their very existence feeds the only real one in charge.

  13. reading Zinn is refreshing, because he is unable at least to paint the actual facts incorrectly, what is funny is to see the conclusions he comes up with. An example:

    In one chapter he talks about how, between 1830 and 1860 (approx.), 10,000 out of 12,000 tenant farmers became landowners–wresting it away from prominent families like the Renseleers (sp?)–through strikes, voting, and the occasional riot or act of violence (on both sides). Instead of concluding “this is progress–though messy” he basically argues that the 83 percent who became new landowners were now the new oppressoers of the 17 percent who didn’t achieve landownership. These events were not heartening episodes for him.

  14. A reading of the reviews at Amazon should make it clear that those who support Zinn’s book really don’t care whether it’s accurate. They like it because it gives them an excuse to play sighted man in the land of the blind. It’s an ego booster for those who require one — “I’ve been to college and now I know everything.”

  15. Well, whether you’re accepting statements as facts to feel better about yourself or you’re saying that you know the personality flaw that causes a large group of people to like a book, an assumption of superiority is an essential element.

  16. Aside from all the astute observations made by commenters here, another reason Zinn’s book continues to fly off the bookstore shelves is that it’s well written. Actually, it’s a damn good read, as long as you can overlook the fact that it’s a pile of tendentious bullshit.

    Unfortunately, academic historians today (with very few exceptions: Schama, Keegan) disdain writing good narrative histories for the trade market, leaving the gap to be filled by propagandists like Zinn.

  17. I’d appreciate any help finding a resource that documents Zinn’s factual errors in “A People’s History…” Thanks in advance.

  18. I read about 100 pages of that thing once. It kind of reminded me of some Seventh-Day Adventist books for children I once read — condescending though with a direct and pleasant authorial tone. Fairy tales meant to be believed.

    I think I left it in the dumpster when I moved a few years back. Normally, I don’t believe in throwing books away, but…

  19. Les,
    Any collections of politicians’ personal writings and correspondences should be useful for that purpose. I’m a strong believer that you can’t do better than original sources. Also, try following up Zinn’s citations in “A People’s History.”

    Chomsky’s full-length works are extensively cited and in that sense, well-researched, but dishonest just the same. He routinely distorts the record by a variety of methods that include: presenting disagreeing sources in a mocking tone without actual refutation; trimming quotes and interspersing his own words so as to change the meaning (e.g. NSC 68); omitting evidence that would, by itself, falsify his thesis (e.g. all cold war intelligence-gathering); exchanging quantitative and qualitative comparisons (e.g. the McCarthy investigations vs. the Soviet purges); defending a claim about one country/period solely with evidence from another; and, when specifically refuted, denying the existence of his own past remarks (e.g. the Afghan “silent genocide”).

    I can’t address MC specifically since it’s not one of the Chomsky works I’ve read, nor would this be the place to do so. I will, however, refer you to this article
    which has the best discussion of Chomsky’s evidentiary fallacies that you’ll find in so many words.

  20. Isaac Bartram,
    I don’t think anyone notices your spelling errors until you point them out.

  21. You would have 50% of the population of the US almost free . . . Anybody out there have anything on why that wouldn’t work?

    Because they would immediately spend all their spare time lobbying their legislators to vote a 95% tax rate onto to the people who still did pay, then use the money to get all sorts of goodies from the government they couldn’t get before. And the legislators would be more than happy to oblige, as long as they could pass a law or tax code revision exempting their own incomes for some arcane reason.

  22. Support for Phil’s thesis is to be found in the memoirs of British Finance Minister Nigel Lawson. He recounts how, after delivering two successive budgets in 1984 and 1985 which each substantially raised the personal tax allowance allowance in real terms, his 1986 budget, which saw simple indexation of the personal allowance coupled with a cut of the standard rate of income tax from 30% to 29%, elicited volumes of complaint from non-taxpayers that his budget had done nothing for them.

  23. Well then the deal would have to be, that you get not to pay taxes, but then you can’t ask for stuff paid for by taxes. You get no refunds (because you didn’t pay), you get no subsidies of any sort, none of that. Medicare and medicaid would be a seperate battle, as would welfare. But I think that the population is coming around on the whole welfare deal anyways.

  24. Zinn’s book is like a computer program on elephant migration that uses a dot to represent each elephant. It shouldn’t be an elephant-ologist’s only source of information about elephants, but it does an excellent job on the subject the author chose for his study, and presents a point of view that helps students of American history understand the subject better.

    Every historian writes from a point of view, and picks and chooses from an almost infinite number of facts and narrative tools to reflect an understanding of the truth. Chomsky makes no claims that his book is the definitive, objective truth of American history; instead, he is unusually honest about the impossibility of such a thing, and the responsibility of readers to be aware of authorial agency and use their critical facilities.

  25. kwais –

    As I understand it, this does occur to some extent. Consider school districts. Many people have no problem paying for good schools, clean sidewalks, a strong police force, etc., provided they receive a benefit for it. And if those folks can’t get it where they live, they’ll either move or send their kids to private schools.

    This brings me to a point about Zinn and many other Leftists: they are not necessarily lovers of Big Government. In fact, many lefties dislike liberal thinking, because they feel that a welfare state at best obscures class tensions that must eventually be resolved, and at worst is just another tool of The Man. The biggest weakness I find in Leftist thinking is not blind love of Big Government, but a refusal to recognize that in bringing people together “organically”, only two things have consistently worked: shared self-interests (see 1st par.) and shared cultural norms.

  26. Ken,

    “So, if the left is in such a big retreat, why is it that the rich, who benefit the least from government services, have to pay through the nose?”

    Because the figures you link to only deal with Income Taxes. If you put together all taxes and fees, each quintile pays pretty much the same % of its income.

    Which is why Republicans efforts to cut federal income taxes, while ignoring regressive payroll taxes and caused regressive state and local taxes to rise, is so revolting.

  27. Ken, here’s a quick lesson in Class Warfare. The two fold increase in percentage of total tax receipts paid by the top 1% of earners in this country is PROOF that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

    Of course, if the trend ever reverses it will be PROOF that rich are paying less and less of their fair share and are sticking it to the poor.

    Ain’t statistical abuse grand?

  28. Douglas Fletcher,

    You threw Uncle Arthur in the dumpster?

    That’s it for you; You’re going straight to hell.

  29. Les and joe

    Zinn and Chomsky (and others like them) are certainly regarded as “historians” and “investigative” journalists by their admirers– and despite the pedestrian versions of Deconstruction packed in their prefaces– this is an impression they rather dishonestly cultivate…when really all any of them do is “google searches” for stories they can link to the one-sided and unfair characterizations they wish to contend. I t would be like calling Rick Barton an “historian”.

  30. This article claims to present some factual errors in Zinn’s book:

    “For instance, Zinn claims that ?George Washington was the richest man in America.? He wasn?t, but it makes for a good story…”

  31. “Because the figures you link to only deal with Income Taxes. If you put together all taxes and fees, each quintile pays pretty much the same % of its income.”


  32. Critial thinking means swallowing lies. Remember that kids.

  33. “Which is why Republicans efforts to cut federal income taxes, while ignoring regressive payroll taxes and caused regressive state and local taxes to rise, is so revolting.”

    Payroll taxes are regressive in what way?

    If someone makes $300,000 a year and pays a flat ten percent, they’re paying $30,000. If someone else makes $30,000 a year, they pay $3,000 in state and local taxes. That’s not regressive; that’s strictly proportionate.

    Not proportionate to benefits, mind you. You’re not going to try to sell me on the idea that the wealthy benefit from Social Security and Medicare disproportionately, are you?

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