I saw Howard Zinn at PSU when I was a junior in high school. The room was packed, and security wasn’t letting anyone else in. Determined to see the man whose book I’d just read, though, I found an opening, ducked past security, and sat down on the floor in the back of the lecture hall. He was a wonderful speaker. I’d read his book A People’s History of the United States at the urging of my history teacher, Mr. Curry, who ranks as one of the four or five most influential teachers I’ve ever had. It was probably the fastest thousand pages I’ve ever read.
I didn’t agree with everything Prof. Zinn said, but he was an immense influence. From him, I learned something about history and politics that has stayed with me to this day:
When people argue about history, they’re not arguing about accuracy.
Historical arguments in the public sphere don’t really have anything to do with the fine details of what is true. Professional historians may take sides on whether something was characteristic of a given time period or carbon-dated correctly, but public historical controversies aren’t really about that. At that PSU lecture, Zinn gave the example of Columbus.
The historical record is fairly clear about what Columbus did and didn’t do, and who he was. It’s quite clear that he did not, in fact, prove that the world was round (that was already well known) and did, in fact, kill quite a lot of Native Americans. Columbus (and his crew) were professionals and kept records of what they were doing. The truth is, as they say, out there.
The perennial controversy every October 12th, though, isn’t about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the historical record. It’s not about whether or not those written records are accurate or not. Arguments about history are clashes between what people want to believe (the “truthiness” of something, if you will) and what is actually true.
Symbols, emotions, and cultural identifications all taint the way people evaluate history politics. It’s about people wanting history to be cleaner and more idyllic than it is, and the practice of willful ignorance on the part of those who want simplicity rather than truth. When the truth that people know they can’t fight, comes up against symbols and emotions, that’s when controversy strikes. One may say something like “Yes, Columbus did kill many people needlessly but…” followed by an argument about why he should still be lionized.
This is hard even for me. It takes a certain amount of emotional fortitude for me to admit to myself that Lincoln and FDR, my two favorite presidents, did some fairly awful things. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, probably the most primal and basic of all legal rights. Roosevelt had Japanese internment, a program that destroyed my own hometown’s Japanese community.
(MLK also committed plagiarism in college. It feels sort of uncomfortable to believe that, doesn’t it? Too bad it’s true.)
Being able to face these nasty historical truths, though, is not without a certain satisfaction. What’s more, it makes the more positive aspects of history stand out with even greater dramatic effect. Zinn, though, taught me to not look for perfect figures or statuesque titans in the history books. The desire to see them as such led only to disappointment. The facts are there, the truth is out there, and longing for lionized cultural symbols only leads to controversy and argument. It is not an argument about facts that occurs every October 12th, but an argument between an emotional desire for unblemished heroes versus seeing history as-is.
Zinn taught me that history is riddled with blood, injustice, and unfairness. He made me realize that as much as one might admire an ancient city, one still has to think of the slaves who built it. History is full of those who were trampled underfoot and never given a chance, and to ignore that- to only focus on polished marble edifices of imagined ancestors -is to do a disservice to them and the truth. I didn’t always agree with him, but he illuminated truths that needed telling.