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2020-05-29

Howard Zinn Was Right by Being Left

I joke that I'm a "recovering" historian. It's a lame joke that tries to expropriate the idea of being in recovery like a sober alcoholic. Some might be offended by adopting a term of struggle for myself. But it does describe something I had to leave behind. My first career was as a practicing historian. People even paid me money to practice it. Not much, but enough to ply my trade. Sadly, for me, I had to abandon that career to make a living. My recovery joke was a way to deal with the unacknowledged pain.

I tell this tale to set up the context. One of the historians I met and studied his books was Howard Zinn. You may be more familiar with his book, A Young Peoples' History of the United States. It examines all those people that first European and later American elites subjugated and exploited. There was a lot of violence and even mass murder along the way. It's a tale told from the bottom up and it ain't pretty.

When I met Zinn, I was a graduate student in history in the late 1970s. The political upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s had ebbed in the wake of national guard troops killing four students at Kent State University and ending the military draft. The former was a warning to student protesters and the latter was a signal that they were no longer at risk of being sent involuntarily to Vietnam. Zinn was often labeled as a New Left activist and historian. That label had meaning among historians at the time. It's meaning was "be careful, there be professional danger here."

You see, when I became engaged with the formal study of history in the 1970s, the battles over race, sex, economics, global power, and the like were still raging in the academy. There were forces on the right trying to push back against the invaders. Those invaders had the temerity to say that Reconstruction may have been a good thing because it empowered and began educating freed slaves. Believe it or not, that was explosive thinking at the time. The people on the right were not defending slaveholders or Jim Crow, but they were pushing back on the tone of this revisionist history. Their critique was as much about manners as evidence. (A medievalist professor of mine once opined in class that he was glad that he could study the Middle Ages because it was "quieter".)

But the substantive arguments were more about looking away from the winners' version of the past to focus on the victims. Zinn was a leading figure in the movement as a "New Left" historian. Unfortunately, when I met him at a conference, introduced by one of my professors, I was still academically wet behind the ears. I did not have the perspective or experience to appreciate his case, but was more attuned to his critics than his evidence. At the time, I adopted a wait and see perspective and placed myself between the consensus historians who thought that America was basically a good thing with some serious problems and the New Left that charged that America was historically a white patriarchy fueled by exploitative capitalism that robbed those at the bottom of the social pyramid of wealth, power, and even a voice.

Soon after, I had to leave my chosen profession to get a job. I followed another enthusiasm, computer programming, that I had picked up along the way. (Long story, but not here.) I thought I had left the academy for good, but returned in my new guise in the mid 1990s. Yet, that argument over the basis of American society and its past never left my mind. My intellectual antennae were tuned to the issues raised by Zinn.

My career shifts offered a way to look at the past and present differently. I was employed by a university but not really part of it. Even after 20 years at the University of North Carolina I never felt part of the community there, despite rising to positions of some significance. Part of me held back because I could see that argument between winners and losers still playing out in the polite discussions during endless committee meetings. It was a subtext but text nonetheless. It gnawed at me, but never did more than shift me leftward. The leaps came later.

By leaps I mean the notion that Karl Marx was right in one sense, along with Zinn, that the powerful get to set the table of reality and most of the people are not seated there. I had to travel to Africa to see that truth in racial terms about my own country. I traveled there many times (another long story, not here) for work to assist in implementing and using information systems to support healthcare. The eye opening took several trips as I was repeatedly immersed in societies that were racial opposites of my home land. These are countries that are ruled by black elites who look like their citizens. Where all the police are black and being stopped while white–which happened a few times–gave me an appreciation of the situation here at home.

It's been a long journey to see the obvious inequities and injustices that are hidden in plain sight. "Black lives matter" is much more than a rallying cry. It is an indictment of a power structure that will take more than a few commissions and the occasional impartial investigation to address. The system has a flawed structure and a value system skewed to reward those who do not deserve the bounty of our nation. (Just ask an "essential" worker if they are paid enough.)

Our response to these realities needs to be more than charity, although that may help a bit. Philanthropists cannot correct the flaws in our society because they are deeper than the blemishes that mar the surface. The very bones of America need to be reset to enshrine the people with all the power and recognize their universal rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". With cosmic irony, it was a slaveowner who penned those words. We as a nation have yet to recognize their import and meaning.

Zinn was right.

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