The beginning of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States breaks open with the force of a thunderclap. The historian sets the stage for the encounter between Christopher Columbus and the Arawak people of the Bahama Islands in one spare paragraph: Upon catching sight of the explorer and his crew, the natives “ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.” Zinn then allows Columbus to take over the narrative. The Spaniard lingers a moment over the Arawaks' hospitality and physical beauty -- “They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.” -- before concluding, “They would make fine servants … . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Those two paragraphs have a deadly elegance. They lull the reader into a sort of idyll, a dreamy, coiling narrative -- natives “full of wonder,” wading out with gifts, the explorer's own appreciation -- before snapping like a scorpion's stinger. The techniques used in the opening are trademark Zinn: the guileless depiction of a prized ideal -- Columbus as hero, the American dream, the goodness of the “good” World War II -- that slashes into a revelation of the abuse of those ideas, the collateral damage on those largely left out of power, and of history. It's the best kind of cognitive whiplash.
The new documentary Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train chronicles the life that gave rise to A People's History, which has now sold more than a million copies. As the film's title indicates, the 81-year-old Zinn has participated in history as much as he has written about it -- as a longshoreman on strike; a volunteer in World War II who dropped napalm on a French village; a professor at the historically black college Spelman who took part in anti-segregation protests; a Vietnam War protester.
In a way, it seems odd that Zinn -- a tireless skeptic of power, an archaeologist of the hidden narratives of the disenfranchised -- should be the subject of what nearly amounts to a hagiography. Directors Deb Ellis and Denis Miller unspool dramatic archival footage of Zinn at protests, along with glowing testimonials from former students like Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman. But there are no voices of dissent. Nothing from the elites Zinn was battling in the academy and the government, nor the everyday people who may have resisted the movements in which he participated.
That deficiency becomes more marked as the film emerges into the present. Zinn speaks out against the Iraq War, arguing that the United States should turn its attention to the suffering within its own borders. A very valid point, considering the steady erosion of civil liberties and programs for the poor, the ongoing attacks on reproductive and gay rights. But his response seems like a neat sidestep. Like that of Michael Moore, Zinn's often sharp critique leaves one grasping a fistful of questions -- and offers no real pragmatic alternative to our current involvement in Iraq or the dilemma of terrorism. Zinn and the film would benefit by sharpening their views -- on Iraq, on the scope of Zinn's work -- in dialogue with those who disagree with them.
The film largely succeeds in its main goal, however: capturing the formidable charisma of its subject and the influence of his views. The quizzical eyebrows, the shock of white hair, the large and searching eyes all add up to an unexpectedly cheerful man, keen to unearth not only forgotten suffering but also people's movements against injustice that are the seeds, he indicates, to a better future.
On first read, Zinn's work sometimes seems mired in a simplistic dialectic between “victims and executioners.” But it's a soft dialectic; his moral outrage never comes unmoored from a sense of humanism and of the possibility of change. “The prisoners of the system will continue to rebel,” he writes in A People's History. But “the new fact of our era is the chance that they may be joined by the guards.” In just the same way, Zinn makes note of the “aggressive” aspects of nonviolent resistance, the sort of psychological violence enacted upon a perpetrator when he or she experiences the dissonance between an ideal and the injustice it is used to justify. In the film, Zinn zeroes in on his own experience dropping “jellied gasoline” in World War II, noting the gap between what he terms the expansionist and economic motivations of the U.S. government and the ideals of those who volunteered to fight in the war.
The film gives ample time to Zinn's writings, which are read by Matt Damon, one famous fan of the professor's work. (In Good Will Hunting, Damon's character tells his therapist, played by Robin Williams, that A People's History will “knock you on your ass.”) And here, in his willingness to counter the mechanisms of power within the drafting of history, the truly radical influence of Zinn is revealed. As Philip Gourevitch writes in his chronicle of the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, “History … is a record of successive struggles for power, and to a very large extent power consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality -- even, as is so often the case, when that story is written in their blood.”
Bolstered by the scholarship of the New Left, Zinn's efforts in A People's History to upend a top-down approach to his field of study -- to talk about “the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves … of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills … the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers” -- keeps those stories from the death of erasure. The act of reading and writing such narratives become, themselves, powerful acts of resistance.
Zinn never loses sight, however, of the fact that “[w]e readers and writers of books have been, for the most part, among the guards [of systems of oppression].” Would that his documentarians had remembered the same, perhaps depicting the effect of Zinn's writings outside the ivory tower, away from the protests fueled by college students. Why not A People's History of Howard Zinn, perhaps with the filmmakers visiting everyday people affected by the professor's political work? Or following a low-income high-school class as its students grapple with Zinn's texts, try to draft their own histories?
Also, why remove the voices of powerful elites and their “conventional” history? Zinn's ideas have always drawn strength from continual contact with this dominant other, gained energy and fire from his stance of clear-eyed rebellion.
As with Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, however, perhaps the real world provides ample pushback to Zinn's ideas. As Zinn has argued, an “inevitable taking of sides … comes from the selection of history,” and no more so than in times of war. We are caught now between dueling candidates, dueling propagandas. No wonder, then, that the recent tide of documentaries bear little proof that they are being shaped and colored by a wholly complex reality. Until the time all of us can acknowledge a more holistic truth and depict the voices that disagree with our views, perhaps we are left with Zinn's words, which never fail to acknowledge human interrelation and fluidity -- “The lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim.” -- even as Zinn takes a strong stance against one side.
In these times, Zinn's project -- the creation of a dynamic history that acknowledges the humanity of its detractors even as it criticizes them, depicts both suffering and glimmers of redemption -- is a worthy one to remember, especially if it fuels the hope that “our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.