Howard Zinn was a towering figure of our times. For society to remain balanced, there has to be a Howard Zinn blowing the whistle, calling spade a spade and keeping the mainstream discourse honest. The geniuses of our times – the Zinns, Eqbal Ahmeds, Saids, Chomskys and Barsamians have made a contribution and filled a gap at a crucial time in global history. – YLH
Americans have been taught that their nation is civilised and humane. But, too often, US actions have been uncivilised and inhumane.” That was the American historian Howard Zinn who taught a whole generation of Americans to view the history of their country through a lens quite different from the rose-tinted lenses of most of his fellow historians whose work takes care to do nothing to besmirch America’s reputation as “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. Zinn stands out since much of modern historiography is crawling with feckless nationalism. Yes, the infusion of commonplace loyalties in a tract about the past is not always deliberately arrived at for it often flows from subtle conditioning. Just as you wouldn’t read Abul Fazal for a critical account of Emperor Akbar’s exploits, it would be a rare Indian or a Pakistani who questions tired axioms rooted in nationalist loyalties, and which pass for a glimpse of our past.
That’s how in the subcontinent we are kept glued to Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru as though nothing else mattered. What were the amazingly diverse people, the angry, happy, fighting, romantically idyllic communities of the subcontinent doing before they came on the scene to conjure freedom from colonialism? And was freedom from colonialism everything? What about the slavery that followed or preceded it? The subaltern groups of a few researchers have embarked on a Zinn-like journey of unbridled inquiry into India’s past. Otherwise, apart from a grudging allowance sometimes made to include the more radical Bhagat Singh and, of late, Ambedkar, there is not too much that puts the complex impersonal dynamic of the subcontinent in the popular historical frame.
Zinn, who died last week at 87, wrote an autobiography called You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. A beautiful title for a book, and though it was written before the era of George Bush, a beautiful, radical and political response to the Bush axiom: ‘if you are not with us, you are with the terrorists’. Howard Zinn never opted for the ‘neutrality’ that many scholars take refuge in. And for this he was prepared to take the consequences, beginning from being fired from his teaching job at Spelman College for ‘instigating’ black students to rebel against college authorities during the civil rights movement. How many of our historians have been subjected to the isolation that Zinn was for pursuing his profession with integrity? As his friends observed he was often reviled for peeling back the rosy veneer of much of American history to reveal sordid realities that had remained hidden for too long.
When writing about Andrew Jackson in his most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980, Zinn said: “If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history, you will find Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people — not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.”
It was a revelation to me during a recent visit to California how much respect the iconic historian commanded among the young generation. A white American mother of a soldier serving in Iraq was distraught that her son, who read Zinn when he was 10, had chosen the unlikely profession. “We are not anxious so much that he is in an unsafe place. We are puzzled that he has chosen to be part of an occupation army,” she told me, not without obvious outrage. In the end the young officer could just be following in Zinn’s footsteps — for he was a bombardier in the US Air Force during the Second World War. It was after he was ordered to drop heavy bombs that were the forerunners of the napalm, on defeated German soldiers in France that he turned against the purpose of war. That experience offers the best hope for the distraught mother’s soldier son. That Zinn’s cult book — The People’s History of the United States — is regarded as a bible by his followers spells hope for a country that appears to be too easily mired in global bloodletting.
How many historians would take on Christopher Columbus, celebrated in the United States as a founder of the nation? Zinn starts his book with a scathing indictment of the Spanish sailor thus: “When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.” Columbus later wrote of this in his log: “They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.…” Of Cuba in 1508, Las Casas the witness and chronicler says: “There were 60,000 people living on this island, including Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing this as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….’”
In a comment on American school textbooks (that may be valid for the way Indians and Pakistanis teach history to gullible children) Zinn picks an argument with Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian an authority on Columbus. In 1954 Morison wrote of “the cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors (which) resulted in complete genocide.” In the book’s last paragraph, Morison sums up his truer view of Columbus thus: “He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great — his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and his own mission as the Christ-bearer to land beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities — statesmanship.”
Howard Zinn’s evaluation of Morison’s views was withering and holds a lesson for our historians. “One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide. “But he does something else — he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him…. [Morison says to the reader] with a certain infectious calm: yes, the mass murder took place, but it’s not that important — it should weigh very little in our judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.”
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org