There are many reasons to claim that American History, or better said, the History of the USA, is one of the most interesting subjects to read in the dawn of the 21st century. There are already enough data from the evolution of the first British colonies to the world superpower, in order to understand who our whole civilization moved on during the last centuries. However, many of the works concerning the American history, at least accessible to large audiences, are just referring to geopolitics, diplomacy, economic doctrines, in a way similar to those of fairytales, where the prince loves the princess and the live a happy life in the end.
There is one reference, one book, one work, that had an enormous impact in the education of young Americans on the history of their country and in the same time helped millions of people out of the USA to understand what is going on “in the land of the free and the home of the brave”. This is Howard Zinn’s super best seller, “People’s History of the United States”, first published in 1980 and since then provoked a lot of head ache to the establishment narration of one of the most interesting stories of our species.
The last dictator who burnt books was Hitler and it is quite difficult to do such a thing again. Therefore, academics try again and again to confront Zinn’s arguments, which seem to convince more and more people, more and more Americans, specially of a young age, the so-named millennials, a generation who started to be born one year after the first publication of “People’s History”. This doesn’t happen only in the USA. In previous decades, many European academics made great efforts to re-write the European History, with a very special interest of re-writing the history of WWII. The results are just shown in the previous elections, polls, events and just in a week on the results of the elections for the European Parliament. Shall we imagine that the same result is the goal in the other end of the ocean? Who knows? We’re not doing hypotheses, however one should reveal how dangerous such a rewriting can be.
Nevertheless, when this kind of rewriting is reviewed by a media whose objective is to attack to any perspective of more equal life for the masses, named “The Wall Street Journal”, this analysis becomes interesting by default. This is exactly an article written by Naomi Schaefer Riley, who reviews a new book which aims to “reclaim history from Howard Zinn”. Yes, they admit their ideological failure, for decades, by admitting a new generation, shaped through critical thinking, out of anticommunism of previous decades, convinced about simple realities. But this is dangerous for some people, trained and training at the most prestigious private academic institutions of the world. This book, with the title “The Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story” (are you kidding me?) is written by Wilfred M. McClay and tries to answer a series of question. The way that this is done, as revealed in the WSJ article, is just hilarious. Here I will not do a review of any of those book, but I will reveal some points of this article.
First of all, the columnist expresses her skepticism for the fact that Zinn’s book continues to be on the top shelves of American bookshops, with enormous success. You know, people who read today, in the era of social media and in general multimedia, are those who are seeking for some deeper answers about society, nature, our civilization etc. Therefore, it’s not a strange fact that books like this are a successful classic. There is no strange at all that books who try to give the opposite narration aren’t classic or successful at all. The other side of the story is given every day in TVs, social media, websites with massive audiences etc. Nobody needs to spend time to read them again in a book. This is something that the columnist doesn’t seem to really understand, admitting with the first words of her article a very important defeat, the loss of the battle of convincing intellectuals and more precisely the younger part of them.
Do you know what mansplaining is? Maybe a term which is used more that it should be, by people who don’t know it. But if it can be a definition of it, these are the words of “The Land of Hope” author, who says that he doesn’t mean his new book as “some saccharine whitewash of American history”. Actually, it is exactly this, he couldn’t describe in better words, anybody else couldn’t find such an offensive way to reveal his objective. Nevertheless, when going a bit further, he just admits their failure, which is an ideological failure, saying by word that “Zinn’s success is indicative of our failure”. Why in the bloody hell should somebody write a whole history of a nation just in order to correct a failure which is the result of another’s success? Is this a scientific motive? I let the answer up to you.
Instead of revealing the causes, the economic background and interests, the basis of conflicts, the author of the book and the columnist reviewer present the incredibly complex 19th century American history as a drama, result of the lack of foresight by its protagonists. This is EXACTLY the way that capitalists try to explain this world, even if they betray nature. They always try to think of closed systems, limited in space, limited in time, eliminating parameters and then trying to give the most complex solution in order to hide their inevitable simplifications that actually are unable to justify their arguments. When the objective of an academic is not to understand how a human society involves but (quoting by word) to “reflect in a way the national story […] of an engaged, patriotic, serious citizen”, then the system is not only closed, but it is also old, rotten and then broken.
In the article, there are some examples revealed, about the so-described simplistic view of Left readers and an undefined mass of “students”. In the effort to answer some quite obvious questions (that doesn’t mean necessarily obvious answers), the book author reveals one of the most droll arguments that I’ve ever had the chance to read. In a hypothetical question about 19th century American women who couldn’t vote or own property, the answer is: “Well, compared to what? Were things better for women in sub-Saharan Africa? Were they better in France?” There are two points here. The first is that he tries to explain all the sins of capitalist society, by comparing it to …the third world (!), a world destroyed by these superpowerful capitalist nations and always used as examples of humanity’s failures. Then, he just says something rhetorically, which is actually wrong, because in France, in the late 19th century, things were actually better for women. It is just his authority, as an academic, which is used in order to avoid dialogue, a dialogue which was made actually by Zinn, as it couldn’t be made in these academics’ classrooms.
McClay says a lot of things even in the limited space of a newspaper, where one can easily understand that he makes a try to explain all the sins of American history, all the sins dominantly made by those in power. Can you imagine why? Of course you can. However, he tries to still point out that this is an effort to write history without ideological bias. Even if such a task is extremely difficult when someone is in the examined system (even if it is considered a closed one), let’s say that he may uses the proper scientific methodology in order to achieve this goal. Does he? Oh, you may be disappointed, as he reveals that “as Americans, you are part of what is arguably the most exciting enterprise in human history” whereas Zinn’s narration is considered “a comic-book melodrama in which ‘the people’ are constantly being abused by ‘the rulers’.” Thus, the problem is not the objectivity and the scientific examination of the history and therefore evolution of this society, the problem is that even in plain words, the “unbiased” approach is self-defined as a clearly biased one, and these people doesn’t even seem to understand it.
This is a nice story, because this is how capitalists say with their own words two things: first, that they want to re-write the history with their own narration, second, they want to do so because they are ideologically defeated. Guess what, it is a natural system, every contribution leads more and more to the same result, we should maybe thank them for their service.
- Naomi Schaefer Riley – “Reclaiming History from Howard Zinn”, The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2019
- Wilfred M. McClay – “Land of Hope – An Invitation to the Great American Story”
- Howard Zinn – “People’s History of the United States”