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. It was completely true before Zinn started writing. He employed a method of recording history that puts outside perspectives at the center of the narrative. 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.

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 Zinn tell the story of modern America from? He would have too many options to write them down in a lifetime. 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 target black, Latino, and poor communities. And our intelligence agencies target governments who stand in the way of multinational companies profiting. They oppose actions that protect the citizens and resources of the target country from foreign exploitation.

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 Neoliberal 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 responded to a history of police brutality which only became visible to the majority of society as videos surfaced from cellphone-camera technology.  

The people of Syria are currently recovering from a Civil War where the rebel forces were funded by the Pentagon and the CIA. The crime of Bashar al-Assad was not being a violent dictator but being in the way of the Military Industrial Complex. Muammar Qaddafi had a similar experience in Libya, a country that currently hosts an open slave market.

The method employed by Zinn became far more difficult to ignore in the age of social media. People 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 unavioidable national conversation.

Every participant in social media helps create reality for their peers through their post and share buttons. That is a responsibility. Anyone who believes in building a better world for everyone needs to consider what worldview is being presented on their social media accounts. Are you presenting the opinions of the status quo or are you spreading the voices of the oppressed? I implore you to emphasize the latter.

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