Howard Zinn’s Fake History

To Howard Zinn’s followers, the United States and Christianity are seen primarily as oppressors of the weak.

Author Howard Zinn reads at a “celebrity reading” of A People’s History of the United States held at the Japan America Theatre, Oct. 5, 2005, in Los Angeles.
Author Howard Zinn reads at a “celebrity reading” of A People’s History of the United States held at the Japan America Theatre, Oct. 5, 2005, in Los Angeles. (photo: Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

This February and March, former Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders sparked controversy by praising the Communist regimes of China and Cuba. Sanders’ base consists mainly of young people who don’t remember the Soviet Union, nor Tiananmen Square. Nor do they want to consider expatriates from Venezuela and Cuba. In a March 24 article, Teen Vogue blames capitalism for the rampant spread of COVID-19. How many parents are struck by the Communism of their children when they come back from college?

The popularity of Communism among younger people can be traced to the late Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, a perennial bestseller for 40 years as both a textbook and trade book.

Mary Grabar, a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, makes a noble attempt to combat Zinn with her new book Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing a Fake History That Turned a Generation Against America (Regnery History, Washington DC, 2019). In the introduction, she writes, “Conservative professors and educational reformers fume about the ‘Zinnification’ of history as evidenced in the new AP (Advanced Placement) standards.” Her book’s intention is outreach to the young raised on Zinn, but it unintentionally appeals to those who already agree.

Zinn’s influence is wide-ranging.

The Zinn Education Project puts his work in schools, and now offers distance learning. He starred in an autobiographical film, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. His play, “Marx in Soho” was performed worldwide on the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth in 2018. There are graphic novel versions and children’s books based on his People’s History. Pearl Jam’s 2002 song “Down” was inspired by front man Eddie Vedder’s 1998 interview with Zinn. In 2018, former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick gave away copies of People’s History at the youth Know Your Rights camp in New Orleans.

The People Speak, a cinematic version of his A People’s History of the United States with celebrities such as Matt Damon, John Legend, Pink, Morgan Freeman, Bob Dylan and Danny Glover, was screened at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver that nominated Barack Obama for president.

In Debunking Howard Zinn, Grabar sets out to refute Zinn’s claims that portrays Christianity and capitalism as oppressors, beginning with the Native Americans.

Zinn’s writing has spurred the movement to abolish Columbus Day, replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day.

Grabar is particularly passionate about this subject, especially now that many states have abolished the holiday or replaced it with Indigenous People’s Day. She spends two chapters on it: “Columbus Bad, Indians Good” and “Howard Zinn’s ‘Usable Indian.’” Grabar goes into detail about how Zinn used early interactions with the Native Americans to slam Christianity. Zinn himself wrote that Europe was “the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.”

For Grabar, Zinn is a transformative figure, and his ultimate legacy is the end of Columbus Day. As she puts it, “Zinn was instrumental in the sea change that has transformed Columbus from the discoverer of America into the genocidal villain whose murder and enslavement of the Indians is the original sin that makes America a crime.” Unlike the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, the “original sin” of America is neither forgivable nor redeemable.

For Grabar, Columbus Day encapsulates Zinn’s anti-Christian project. Since Columbus is viewed as the “discoverer” of America, Zinn indicts America’s “original sin” as being founded in racism, conquest, lust for power and greed. As Grabar sums it up, “Columbus and the European civilization he represents are the serpent that destroyed the real-live Garden of Eden.” Columbus’ desire to spread Christianity is briefly mentioned. She would’ve had a stronger argument had it been allowed to develop. Instead, Zinn is accused of finding inspiration and sources in other like-minded historians.

Zinn’s anti-Christian views do get some mention. He began his career at Baptist Spelman College, where he condemned chapel as “pompous and empty ritual.” He was fired in 1963. In People’s History, Zinn claims the New England Puritans appealed to the Bible in stealing Native American lands. He describes Cortez as “come from Spain with an expedition financed by merchants and landowners and blessed by the deputies of God, with one obsessive goal: to find gold.” As Grabar puts it, “Zinn successfully sold himself as a historian knocking down the giants who preceded him and championed the cause of the innocents oppressed by colonizers, capitalists, and Christians.”

Debunking, however, is more focused on Zinn’s crusades against capitalism and colonialism than Christianity. Grabar drops tantalizing hints without ever going into a more thorough discussion of the subject.

Zinn’s People’s History treats Catholicism — and Christianity itself — as the villainous oppressor. His chapter on Columbus describes Spain’s expulsion of the Jews in 1492, binding itself to the Catholic Church, and championing Columbus’ conquests. Zinn goes on to describe Puritan New England as “European values as brought over by the first colonists, a society of rich and poor, controlled by priests, by governors, by male heads of families.” Christianity is treated as the genocidal tyrant toward peaceful indigenous people. His chapters on “Manifest Destiny” condemn not only broken treaties, but also missionary efforts in the West. Evangelization is considered “spiritual genocide” (to quote the Zinn Education Project in a Teaching Plan on Indian Removal).

Zinn criticizes President Andrew Jackson not only for the horrific Trail of Tears, but for desiring Native American conversion to Christianity. He blames Christianity for racism, enslavement, and segregation of African-Americans. Furthermore, Zinn described Christianity as marginalizing and silencing women. One of his notable examples of feminism is Frances Wright (1795-1852), who not only called for the abolition of slavery, but for birth control and “free love.” Wright was vocal in her condemnations of capitalism and organized religion.

In his chapter on the Declaration of Independence, Zinn laments that the separation of church and state never really happened after 1776, and that religion is in America’s fabric. As Zinn wrote in A People’s History, quoting an anarchist congress’ manifesto in Pittsburgh from 1883, “The Church finally seeks to make complete idiots out of the mass and make them forgo the paradise on earth by promising a fictitious heaven.”

Grabar denounces Zinn as a “far-left political activist — very possibly a Communist”; her book’s frequent refrain is that Zinn was a leftist, a progressive. True enough, Zinn is unapologetically partisan. His People’s History opens:

By the time I began teaching and writing, I had no illusions about ‘objectivity’, if that meant avoiding a point of view. I knew that as a historian (or journalist, or anyone telling a story) was forced to choose, out of an infinite number of facts, what to present, what to omit. And that decision inevitably would reflect, consciously or not, the interests of the historian.

Zinn denies objectivity, while simultaneously suggesting is bias comes from a higher morality.

But Grabar’s response is equally partisan. While “Debunking” is strong in showing where Zinn is factually wrong and spinning historical events, it is never explained why Communism is wrong, nor is it defined.

Grabar assumes readers agree with her that Communism is wrong. It is her premise in chapters titled “Writing the Red Menace Out of History,” “Black Mascots for a Red Revolution” and “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Howard Zinn and the Commies Win!” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are quoted, but their philosophy remains undefined. That would make it fruitless for any high schooler, collegiate, or parent who want to educate him.

Grabar relies on allegations rather than evidence. She criticizes Zinn’s probable Communism, when he frequently praises Marx in A People’s History. She delves into Zinn’s alleged affair with a Spelman student, Roslyn Pope, though Pope herself denied it as recently as 2016. It is more of a personal attack than a critique of his ideas. His short-lived career at Spelman (1956-1963) gets more attention than his long tenure at Boston University (1964 to his retirement in 1988).

The reader is left with the fact that Zinn’s life wasn’t one of heroic virtue. But we weren’t reading this as cause for canonization. She takes issue with his teaching methods — not giving exams, wide-ranging class discussions, never failing students, and having them read literature instead of history textbooks. As much as we might disagree on his pedagogy, this is about bias and falsehood in his history. At most, she has pertinent but circumstantial evidence.

Early on, Grabar writes, “Former President Barack Obama ‘had a special interest’ in the work of Zinn, according to fellow community organizer Mike Kruglik.” On the other hand, the screening of The People Speak at the 2008 Democratic National Convention goes surprisingly unmentioned. It was a major event, with a record-setting crowd for Obama’s acceptance speech of about 80,000 people. It was a historical moment; Zinn set the tone.

Zinn is still a potent influence. Lora Supandi, in her April 9 Stanford Daily article “Bernie’s campaign and the resilience of a movement,” wrote, “For years, the U.S. government has been a fascist regime for people of color and the queer community. Our post-colonial society has stolen from the indigenous, ostracized queer and POC (people of color) bodies and abused the labor of immigrants and low-income Americans.” Supandi cites Zinn’s history for her argument. This January, the decade anniversary of Zinn’s death, Harvard Divinity professor Cornel West told the Boston Review, “I speak here as a Christian — a revolutionary Christian — to say that there has never been a civilization deeply shaped by Christianity that has not been deeply anti-Jewish. This is one of the cancers of my own tradition.” The United States and Christianity are still seen as the chief oppressors of minorities, be they racial or religious.

Debunking,” while an imperfect work, is important in starting the discussion on socialism and Communism. The current political situations in China and North Korea make it especially timely. At best, it will encourage the reader to engage in further exploration of historical works like Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope and the late Professor Kevin Starr’s Continental Ambitions.