Howard Zinn Vs. The Status Quo

It is important to consider who you are supporting when you share an incident, idea, or perspective on social media. The status quo perspective is never the only perspective. Howard Zinn emphasized the representation of oppressed peoples in his scholarship as a historian.  

Howard Zinn, People's HistoryThe saying – History is written by the victors – is true, to an extent. Radical historians like Zinn record the experiences of those who were ethnically cleansed, enslaved, and oppressed. His major book, “A People’s History Of The United States”, opens with the story of Christopher Columbus. It retells the story celebrated by salaried Americans and schoolchildren every year. He discovered an occupied land, enslaved a free people, and led a genocide against a society who graciously invited them to share everything. Zinn chose to tell the story of the colonization of America using the historical record of a specific tribe.

Herbert Aptheker published “American Negro Slave Rebellions” in 1948. In the introduction Aptheker states that he undertook the study to thoroughly document the stories of slave revolts in the United States. He believed that American Historians had previously minimized or denied the discontent among slaves in the United States.

Howard Zinn, Christopher Columbus, Slaves

Spanish cruelties toward Indian slaves. Line engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590.

The following quote describes Zinn’s method:

“Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson from the pespective of the Cherokee, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by the black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.

“My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tear, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.”

From whose perspective would a radical historian tell the story of modern America? Zinn would have too many options for a lifetime of writing. American military operations reach right around the world. We bomb people where and when we please with our drone program. Our police forces and laws produce mountains of black, Latino, and poor bodies. And our intelligence agencies target governments who stand in the way of multinational companies profiting. They stop governments from acting in the interests of their citizens, or reason, so that the lawyers of corporations can enact whatever profit-friendly measures they’re shooting for that day.

The people of Flint, Michigan and every other American city that allowed their water to become contaminated with lead, coal ash, or e coli have stories to tell that undermine the push to deregulate industry and reduce government budgets.

Howard Zinn, Flint, Lead, Water Crisis

A girl from Flint, MI stands silently behind a sign that reads “I’ve been poisoned by policy,” outside of Flint City Hall on Jan. 8 to protest Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s handling of the water crisis. Photo: Jake May/AP.

The Black Lives Matter movement forced people to pay attention to an abundance of police shootings and a history of police brutality as videos surfaced from cellphone-camera technology.  

People in war-zones and popular uprisings have been able to coordinate and share videos and messages from the destruction of their communities.

The subjects of Zinn’s work became more difficult to ignore in the age of social media. Individuals are able to tell their stories online, they don’t need to wait for The New York Times to interview them. They can produce their own videos, news articles, and interviews. Their experiences can be spread around the world in moments if they go viral. And their perspectives can drive people to action.

The Standing Rock protests gained support and momentum when private security forces released attack-dogs on the Native protesters last September. The event was caught on camera and went viral. The Water Protectors’ movement then became an unavoidable national conversation and thousands of people physically joined their camp.

Every participant in social media and public life helps to inform their peers through their conversation, attention, and their post button. An accurate understanding of the social ties that create and allow oppression can also inform our movements to oppose injustice. Howard Zinn made sure to present an accurate portrayal of the cultural hegemony of Western Culture. He recorded the genocide, the apartheid, the enslavement, the crushing of dissent, and the discrimination accurately. These modern-day crimes had previously been presented in a victorious light or glossed over.

Through the Zinn-Mindset we can direct public discourse to the people who are most vulnerable to the whims of the powerful, people who have been ‘otherized’ — People of color, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and the poor. Without writers like Zinn the death of the revolutionary could end up being remembered as the death of the revolution.

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