Howard Zinn and Empire

Posted on April 9, 2008. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , , |

I’ve just read Howard Zinn’s latest article, “Empire or Humanity? What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me About the American Empire.” I admire Howard Zinn, but I feel his critiques of America’s sins go only  halfway.

Zinn seems to have had the same experience learning about American history in school that I did: either you didn’t read anything negative, negative things were blandly presented as neutral, or negatives were horribly presented as positives.

For example, either you didn’t read about the Trail of Tears at all, or you just read something like “The Cherokees were removed from the southeast.” Or, you might even get a small celebration of it, like “Once the Cherokees were removed from the American southeast, settlers could take advantage of the rich land.”

Then, like me and most other people who come to love American history, Zinn started reading on his own, and finding out about the atrocities American governments and people have committed.

But Zinn seems to have accepted these atrocities as evidence that the idea that the United States was founded in an effort to promote justice and freedom is a lie. If you check back to my About page, you can read a fuller explanation of why I think this is a mistake.

Yes, Americans have done terrible things to each other and to other peoples. But those failures to live up to the principles we were founded on are just that–failures to live up to real principles that really were set up to guide our nation and make it a successful experiment in real democracy.

If, like Zinn, you see these failures as proof that America has always been a lie, that we have no real principles to live up to, then I believe you simply give yourself cynical permission to be morally lazy. If America was never really different from any other nation, if it has no uniquely good principles to live up to, then why care if we commit atrocities? Why care if we build an empire? If America has always been bad, how can you change it?

Zinn hopes that we have “reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity”. I get the feeling that he sees this place as a new beginning, to build up from. But we already have a blueprint and platform for living justly in the world–our founding documents, particulary the Constitution and Bill of Rights. We don’t have to make something new and unknown from scratch. We just have to live up to what we already have.

To quote myself, when it comes to our democracy, “we have to keep founding it, over and over, with every generation. Because it is unique. Liberty, equality, and justice for all goes against human nature. A nation founded on those ideals is always in danger of tripping, falling, and giving up. We must always do justice to those difficult ideals and principles for which we stand.”

So to read Zinn is just step one. Read Zinn! Learn the entire history of your nation. Face up to the problems of being an American today. But don’t stop there, depressed and demoralized, feeling like this country is the worst country in the history of the world. Hearken back to the principles we are supposed to uphold, and start upholding them. Then we will indeed reach a point where we can abandon our empire-building and bring good to the world. Like we’re supposed to.

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One Response to “Howard Zinn and Empire”

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The HBO series John Adams (and the book on which it is based) are illustrative, to your point. Even at the founding of our democracy, there was this constant struggle to keep true to and inspired by the ideals. So anti-British sentiment can be displayed as violent tarring and feathering — Adams’ hated mob — or rational discourse. But then the rational discourse can water down ideals (the early congressional meetings look incredibly boring) or can turn into mere word play (as per Adams’ experience in France). The struggle to stay true was true as the truth was being defined.

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