History News Network, WA
June 1 2008

The Left's Blind Spot

by Rick Shenkman

Let's start with Howard Zinn and then move on.

Zinn, rather unlikely for a historian, has been feted like a Hollywood
celebrity, receiving encomiums from stars like Danny Glover, James
Earl Jones, and of course, Matt Damon, whose character in Good Will
Hunting famously brandishes a copy of Zinn's A People's History of the
United States during a raucus encounter with Robin Williams. In 2003 a
large crowd turned out at a celebration in Manhattan at the 92nd
Street Y to mark the sale of the one millionth copy of the
book. Recently, there was even a television series built around the
book's themes.

Why is Zinn so popular (with the general public, if not with
historians, many of whom have expressed reservations about his books)?
The answer is that Zinn plays the role in a self-satisified
often-uncritical mainstream culture of the seemingly attractive
dangerous rebel. "If you want to read a real history book, read Howard
Zinn's A People's History of the United States," Damon exclaims in the
movie. "That book will knock you on your ass."

But just how dangerous is Zinn? Like many left-wingers he regularly
calls attention to a long list of crimes American officials have
committed against various groups and countries while celebrating the
virtues of ordinary folks. But what he doesn't do is admit the
obvious: that the ordinary people he is so eager to lionize have often
turned a blind eye to what their government's leaders through the
years have done in their name.

That the people's responsibility for our foreign policy choices is
seldom mentioned is strange. For many years now it has been a staple
of the left-wing approach to history to draw attention to the people
operating at the grassroots. History faculties, dominated by liberals
at most schools, now include few professors who even care to do
research into the papers of political leaders. The fashion instead is
to do social and cultural history where the emphasis is on the
masses. And yet in the context of foreign policy debates public
opinion is relegated to the shadows, as if it were almost irrelevant.

Flip open A People's History almost anywhere and what you are likely
to find is a relentless focus, in all cases where the United States
acted badly in Zinn's view, on our leaders. Consulting the index, I
looked up Iran, which figures prominently in left-wing indictments of
America. There on page 430 is the story of the CIA's coup against
Mossadegh: `In Iran, in 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency
succeeded in overthrowing a government which nationalized the oil
industry.' On this same page there are attacks on the Marshall Plan,
criticisms of the invasions of Latin America, and even a denunciation
of the Alliance for Progress. It is the standard left-wing laundry
list of postwar American crimes, follies and hypocrisies:

The Marshall Pan comes in for criticism because its real purpose
allegedly was to help create markets for the benefit of our
corporations. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated, in what Zinn
supposes is an admission of rank venality, `These measures of relief
and reconstruction have been only in part suggested by
humanitarianism. Your Congress has authorized and your Government is
carrying out, a policy of relief and reconstruction today chiefly as a
matter of national self-interest.'

The Alliance for Progress, JFK's program to promote social reform in
Latin America, is lambasted because `it turned out to be mostly
military aid to keep in power right-wing dictatorships and enable them
to stave off revolutions.'

Our support for the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 is castigated
as a plot to replace an elected government-the `most democratic
Guatemala had ever known'- with a military junta on behalf of United
Fruit. (Arbenz had expropriated 234,000 acres of the company's land.)

Our dispatch of thousands of troops to Lebanon in 1958 was designed
`to make sure the pro-American government there was not toppled by a
revolution.' We also wanted to `keep an armed presence in that
oil-rich area.'

Finally, there is our support for the Cuban dictator Batista and our
attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro.

Zinn's chief theme in the book's chapters on foreign affairs is that
the United States has played the role of a bully on the world stage
and has frequently done so at the behest of our corporations. Our
leaders' idealistic talk? So much claptrap. Dig a little, Zinn
recommends, and what you find is that these leaders approved nefarious
policies at odds with basic assumptions about America's stated
commitment to human rights.

Our concern here is not with the content of Zinn's indictment. He may
be right or he may be wrong. (I think he is right in some cases and
dead wrong in others.) The concern at hand is rather with what he has
not said than with what he has. And what he has not said is that the
American people are associated with the policies to which he objects.

Indeed, it is the peculiar practice of Zinn to put The People front
and center in his narrative only when they are doing good as he
defines good. When The People are doing bad things-as when they are
allowing their leaders to adopt unsavory foreign policies-they are
largely invisible. The narrative subtext that runs throughout his
book can be summed up this way. Leaders bad, ordinary people good.
Or rather, white leaders bad, ordinary people good.

Not that The People are infallible. But in Zinn's accounts he hastens
always to indicate that their mistakes are owing to their manipulation
by elites. In the notorious case of Vietnam, for example, he notes
that LBJ `used a murky set of events in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the
coast of North Vietnam, to launch full-scale war.' That ordinary
people allowed themselves to be bamboozled by the president doesn't
occur to Zinn. I do not mean to suggest that ordinary people should
have been able to pierce through LBJ's lies-and they were lies, as we
now know-about the events that transpired in the Tonkin Gulf. But
their attitude was passive. Whatever the president said they
believed. This was not LBJ's fault. This was their fault.

In Zinn's narrative of the Vietnam War ordinary people do eventually
surface as noble actors in a movement of popular resistance. `Early
in the war,' he writes,

there had been two separate incidents, barely noticed by most
Americans. On November 2, 1965, in front of the Pentagon in
Washington, as thousands of employees were streaming out of the
building in the late afternoon, Norman Morrison, a thirty-two year old
pacifist, father of three, stood below the third-floor window of
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, doused himself with kerosene,
and set himself afire, giving up his life in protest against the war.
Also that year, in Detroit, an eighty-two- year-old woman named Alice
Herz burned herself to death to make a statement against the horror of

A `remarkable change' then took place, says Zinn.

In early 1965, when the bombing of North Vietnam began, a hundred
people gathered on the Boston Common to voice their indignation. On
October 15, 1969, the number of people assembled on the Boston Common
to protest the war was 100,000. Perhaps 2 million people across the
nation gathered that day in towns and villages that had never seen an
antiwar meeting.

Zinn's purpose is to correct the imbalance he sees in other books
which neglect the activities of The People altogether. And to this
extent his book is useful. It opens one's eyes to a largely-or once
largely-neglected aspect of history. But it leaves its readers
unprepared. Framing history as a battle between malevolent elites and
darling ordinary people is too limiting. History encompasses a
broader range. There is about Zinn's approach a kind of arch
determinism that finds in the messy details of history a pattern of
great simplicity. On its face this is suspect.

More to the point of this chapter, Zinn's approach is
self-contradictory. Many of the people who serve in top government
posts have themselves emerged from the masses. When in their
evolution should we therefore begin to say that they have made the
transition from a blessed state of innocence to the ranks of the
damned? Take Lincoln. In his years as a callow youth and unimportant
political figure he fits Zinn's ideal, one supposes. As a young
soldier in a state militia he whiles away the time fighting a losing
battle with mosquitoes, apparently indifferent to medals and the lure
of military valor. Later in his single term in Congress he opposes
President Polk's war of aggression in Mexico. But he is already on
the road to compromise with power. Unlike, says Zinn, the fiery Ohio
antislavery orator, Congressman Joshua Giddings, Lincoln decides `he
would not try to end the war by stopping funds for men and supplies.'
By the time Lincoln is elected president he has become a sell-out: The
war is not between two peoples, northerners versus southerners as most
books declare. It is a war between elites. `The northern elite
wanted economic expansion-free land, free labor, a free market, a high
protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The
slave interests opposed all that.' Lincoln is the chosen
representative of the northern elite. At first, he refuses even to
commit the country to the abolition of slavery. But then `casualties
mounted, desperation to win heightened, and the criticism of the
abolitionists threatened to unravel the tattered [Republican]
coalition.' Lincoln, in response to the pressure, finally moves left
and commits the country to a policy of emancipation. Zinn quotes
Wendell Phillips, who said that if Lincoln was able to grow as
president `it is because we have watered him.'

One would think that readers would see through Zinn's approach. But
the book keeps selling like hotcakes. But why is it the object of
such affection? One reason is that we have a soft spot in our hearts
as Americans for the thirties and Zinn's book is very much a product
of the thirties. Reading his book is like stepping into a Frank Capra
movie where The People battle the Bosses for control of Small Town
USA. If his book were a painting it would look like those magnificent
murals from the thirties that adorn the ceiling of the lobby of
Rockefeller Center, the ones depicting Heroic Working People
Confronting the Forces of Nature and Capitalism. But the chief reason
his book sells-and I say this in the full knowledge that my
observation will be greeted with some astonishment-is because Howard
Zinn, self-described radical, has tapped into the hoary myth that
suffuses The People in an almost divine burst of sunlight. That is,
Zinn, the debunker of American myths, appeals not despite the classic
American myth that underlies his approach, but because of it. Try as
he does to escape from American assumptions to present something fresh
he is actually beholden to one of the oldest assumptions there is.

Lest it be thought that I am picking on Mr. Zinn, let me hasten to add
that the list of left-wingers who share his rosy assumption about The
People is long and distinguished. It includes many writers and
scholars whose work I have been privileged to publish at the History
News Network. But rather than get into the business of naming names,
I prefer to broaden the indictment. Our problem is not that certain
left-wing writers have let the public off the hook, it is that
left-wing readers have. The writers can write what they will. The
trouble is that their readers have not called into question the
assumptions the writers have been making.

Take as an example one of the familiar arguments made during the
debate about the Iraq War. It was summed up by a handy photograph
that surfaced on the eve of the war and was quickly distributed
widely. The picture showed Saddam Hussein, Iraqi dictator, shaking
hands with Donald Rumsfeld, when he was serving as an American envoy
of President Reagan in the early 1980s. The Left loved the
photograph. Here was powerful visual evidence of the complicated and
hypocritical history of the United States in Iraq. Contrary to
President George W. Bush's assertion that Saddam was a wily dictator
so heinous we had to drop bombs on him, the picture suggested that he
was a man with whom we could do business, as the diplomats say. But
left-wingers failed to extend the argument as they properly should
have to include the responsibility of ordinary Americans for our
friendship with Saddam. It is the absence of an argument then that is
at issue rather than the argument that was made. To be sure Rumsfeld
was a hypocrite, shamelessly capable of pirouetting from support to
hostility in an instant, as circumstances dictated, without regard to
questions of morality. But was not the American public's shameless
switch also of interest? It is a peculiarity of our culture and the
inadequacy of the Left's approach that we could acknowledge Rumsfeld's
hypocrisy but not our own.

The failure is not universal. In `A Problem from Hell': America in
the Age of Genocide, which appeared in 2002, the sympathetic,
intelligent and articulate leftist Samantha Power clearly writes of
the American public's complicity or at the least indifference to
Saddam's many crimes against humanity. By the end of her book it
seems almost incredible that Americans have greeted revelations of
genocide with apathy. Recounting the story of the 1988 gassing of the
Kurds at Halabja, which President Bush used as Exhibit A in his
indictment of Saddam's evil rule, Power movingly shows how our
indifference cost lives:

"It was different from the other bombs," one witness
remembered. "There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very
destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had
been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire."

The official reaction of the American government at the time was
embarrassingly weak. First the government downplayed the reports of
the attack attributing them to suspect Iranian accounts. Then when
the evidence mounted and became undeniable official spokespersons like
Marlin Fitzwater denounced Saddam's use of gas but not the attack
itself. As Power observes, "The United States issued no threats or
demands." Furthermore, a State Department spokesman muddied the
waters by suggesting that both Iran and Iraq had possibly used gas.

This terrible record cast a shadow over the leadership of the American
government and obviously is further evidence of the hypocrisy of
leaders like Rumsfeld. But it also suggests that Americans themselves
were uninterested in the attack. The broad outline of what happened
in Halabja was known. Our response as a country to the news of the
attack was known. But by choice, both our leaders and our people
preferred to respond-maybe this is too harsh-with a yawn.

Power herself indicts the public along with its leaders for their
insouciance. She claims convincingly that the public responded
apathetically time and again in the twentieth century to the most
horrendous reports of man's inhumanity to man, beginning with the
Armenian Genocide, the century's first. But if that is the case why
did leftists reviewing the volume not focus their ire on public
opinion? Why did the New York Times book review, written by an editor
at the liberal American Prospect, carry the headline, `Turning a Blind
Eye/A human rights expert surveys a century of American policy toward
mass killings,' as if the problem were with our leaders' policy and
not ourselves, and then devote not a single sentence out of 1,341
words to the question of the American public's culpability?

Curious to see if the Times's review was representative, I checked the
website of the Nation, the country's leading left-wing publication,
for comparison. In its 4,000 word review the public's responsibility
is alluded to just once. Admittedly it is easier to indict specific
policymakers than it is to survey the response-or non-response, as it
were-of the general public. But the conclusion I drew and I do not
think it is an unreasonable one is that the Left is bored with the
theme of democratic weakness. The public's indifference is now so
taken for granted on the Left that few seize the opportunity to
comment on it.

The result is that all sorts of rather incomplete statements parading
as serious arguments have been advanced and accepted. The arguments
are not so much wrong as they are inadequate, the propounders of the
arguments unwilling to follow their premises to their logical
conclusion, as if they were traveling along a speedy highway and
suddenly decided to draw to a dead stop even though they had yet to
reach their destination. Where they were going had seemed plain
enough. But why on earth they had ceased to go forward no one bothers
to say.

Mr. Shenkman, the author of the new book, Just How Stupid Are We?
Facing the Truth About the American Voter (Basic Books, June 2008), is
an associate professor of history at George Mason University and
editor of the university's History News Network