On Contact: A people’s history of the USA with Ray Suarez
Chris Hedges discusses the importance of historian Howard Zinn for a fuller understanding of American history, with journalist Ray Suarez, author of ‘Truth has a Power of its Own: A Conversation about A People’s History with Howard Zinn.’
Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’ has sold more than two million copies.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the importance of the historian, Howard Zinn, with author and journalist, Ray Suarez.
RS: It’s one of the reasons why we’ve never had a successful class-based politics in this country because people cling to other master statuses as the way to think of themselves rather than a person who shares an economic state of being with someone very much unlike them, but they both face the same oppression. Zinn--this is a popular theme in Zinn’s writing. He returns to it again and again, an economic analysis class location, but also this terrible story of how working people become each other’s enemies.
CH: Knowledge is a form of power. It usually cannot compete with the state’s monopoly of coercion and violence but knowledge, nevertheless, is a potent form of resistance. For this reason, the state uses its educational systems and cultural institutions including the press, to craft a historical narrative that deifies those in power including our Founding Fathers and marginalize or ignores the rebels who organized to open up democratic space sometimes with the loss of their lives. History, as it is written and taught for this reason, is often more about deception than proof. It fashions a national myth that buttresses the ruling class. Knowledge is a threat to the ruling elites because it not only exposes this deception, but delegitimizes the state’s monopoly on violence. It informs us about the true nature of power, about who benefits from the status quo. It lifts up the struggles of working men and women and the poor who fought throughout our history against a system predisposed to favor the rich and perpetuate white supremacy. Perhaps no historian or scholar did this better than the late Howard Zinn, the author of the “People’s History of the United States.” Joining me in the studio to discuss Zinn is Ray Suarez whose new book, “Truth Has a Power of Its Own,” is a series of conversations he had with the historian. Just to begin, I taught--I teach in a prison. And I was asked to teach a course on American history. Most of these are poor black young men. And I brought in the “People’s History of the United States.” And I would give a 90-minute talk and they were riveted because for the first time, they were reading something that told their story, told their own history and I would be giving my talk and I would hear someone in the class go, “Damn. We’ve been lied to.” And I think that is the power of Zinn and I think you bring that out. The book is really great. He recovers history and he exposes the lies. If you open the book with Columbus…
RS: Not by accident either.
CH: Not by accident either. I’m sure that’s true. So let’s just talk--I mean, he starts just, you know, it’s sweeping in its narrative and these interviews really focus on that book. For people who haven’t read it, and people should read it if you don’t read any other piece of history, at least read that, why is that book so important?
RS: Because it says to the reader, look, I know you’ve heard these stories of mythic figures, of hinge-point moments in American history, but there’s another story that you haven’t been told. And in order to really think of yourself as someone who understands your own country, you’ve got to know these stories as well. Zinn is not a cudgel. He is a corrective. And he’s saying, look, yes, it’s true. Thomas Jefferson wrote the “Declaration of Independence” but you’ve got to understand this as well or else you’re sitting on a chair that’s missing legs. You’re going to wobble and fall eventually because it just doesn’t make sense without this more complete picture.
CH: You know what’s interesting going back and reading these interviews is that so often, it’s not so much the lie, we could take Columbus, it’s the lie of omission.
RS: Right. Exactly. It’s the idea that we will tell you these parts, brave Ligurian seafaring navigator.
CH: Well, he wasn’t--and as Zinn writes in the book, he was a great navigator.
RS: Absolutely. And so if we jump out, if we just talk about that rather than forcing native people in the Caribbean into slavery to find gold for him, he’s very anxious that they do a lot of work to find gold for him and he physically punishes them to death, in many cases, when they can’t find enough gold. You’ve got to understand that, not only to come up with a conclusion that Columbus was a bad guy, but to understand something more about the 15th century who Europeans thought they were, who they thought these people they were finding were, and the implicit power relation that they thought would always exist between these people arriving on these magnificent boats and the people they found standing on the shoreline.
CH: Before we get into all the historical narratives, at the end of the book, you ask Zinn about, you know, his role as a historian. And Zinn answers that, “It’s not just to teach history,” he says. “It’s not just to write books. It’s not just to go to professional meetings.” He says, “I assume that a historian is somebody who cares about what is going on in the world, someone who studies history and teaches history and writes about history in a way that will have a beneficial effect on the world. I have said that there is no such thing as being neutral in writing history, no such thing as being objective, and there’s no such thing as staying apart from the conflicts that there are in the world. In fact, it is not only understandable, undesirable to do that, but it is really impossible to do that because the world is already moving in certain directions to pretend neutrality, to stand off, to say things and do things and write things that will have--not have an effect is to deceive yourself.” But it also is a form of partiality.
RS: Well, yeah. And here’s where Zinn gets difficult for a lot of even fellow historians. The idea that amassing facts, building a timeline, building context so that you can understand these events in their time, is not enough. Zinn says you have to go that next step and not only contextualize these facts that you’ve amassed, but contextualize events within larger structures that tell us something about how human beings relate to each other. You have to make a conclusion. And that’s where he makes it uncomfortable for a lot of people frankly.
CH: Well, you and I both have done a lot of journalism. And you know as well as I that what we do as journalists is select facts to tell a story. So, when I was writing an article for The New York Times, I selected the facts because you can’t tell all of them. That creates a particular narrative. Those facts are true. But you can spin that narrative with those facts any way you want. And I think that’s what Zinn is challenging, that if you want that huge Ford Foundation grant and to get the university chair at Princeton, and I’m actually quoting from the biographer, Woodrow Wilson, who taught at Princeton, let’s just leave out Princeton’s racism. And if you read that first biography, it’s been excised. It’s not that what’s in there is untrue, it’s that the full truth has never been told.
RS: Look, you and I both know, because we’ve been at this a long time, selection is a big part of the process or else you’re just publishing your notes, which is not what we do. We figure out what’s pertinent so that somebody who arguably doesn’t know anything about what we’re talking about can make some sense, can build a cohesive portrait of facts in evidence. And, yeah, sure, I mean, the selection process tells something about the person who’s doing it and tells something about the intended audience and also tells something, and here’s where it gets dicey, about the matrix within which we work. And that’s one of the hardest parts of all of this.
CH: Well, telling--as Zinn, you know, I remember when Zinn died, there was a long obituary in The New York Times and he was excoriated by many professional historians, including Sean Wilentz who teaches at Princeton, because he broke that mold, because he didn’t work within the approved paradigm.
RS: And, look, I don’t know how you could say that you’re someone who understands American history and understand what America has meant to the world if you don’t know the darker sides of some of these stories. Yes, the Spanish-American War happened in 15--in 19--in 1898. And, yes, a rising power went to war against the decaying power with superior industrial might, superior finances, and beat descending Spain. Yeah, you know a little bit if you know that much, but if you don’t know what happened in Cuba, if you don’t know what happened in Puerto Rico, and if you don’t know what happened in the Philippines, especially, you don’t know American history.
CH: That’s right. Well--and that’s the goal because it is about creating the myth of American exceptionalism, American virtue, American goodness, which is the fuel of empire, he--very early in the book, you talk about the nature of heroism, who is selected to define heroism, George Washington, the richest man in America, slaveholder who made his money seizing Indian lands and selling it on speculation. And it’s--and he lists for him the heroes of American history, Rosa Parks, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Helen Keller, and, of course, when we do know someone like Helen Keller, she’s completely sanitized, as he points out, but that’s an important issue. Who do you choose as your hero?
RS: You might have asked the church in the 16th century who becomes a saint because when you are an American history student from kindergarten all the way to your last day of school, whenever that is, you are being offered a long cavalcade throughout history of secular saints and a selective reading of them. Now, I might part company with Zinn a little bit on something like George Washington. I don’t think our conclusions are very far different, but he puts less emphasis on what Washington might have done and what many of the well-born aristocratic and powerful men of his age would have done. And instead of giving him credit for a certain Republican Virtue, capital R, capital V, and restraint, which a lot of historians say, is the hallmark of George Washington. He didn’t become a tyrant. He didn’t become the powerful man that he…
CH: And they wanted--and they wanted to anoint him king. There was a huge movement. Right, right.
RS: And they want--absolutely. He could’ve become something more like a monarch. He could’ve become something less like what Thomas Jefferson called the president, the first citizen of the republic. He could have taken the power that was on offer and created a crucible for the American presidency that was entirely different and he didn’t do it. I give him a lot of credit for that. Zinn doesn’t. Zinn doesn’t.
CH: Well, Zinn’s--what I love about Zinn is that he never forgets that history--whatever historical period you’re writing about, you must express that through the lens of the oppressed and, of course that, under Washington’s time, would’ve been African-Americans dispossessed, women dispossessed, Native Americans not only dispossessed but murdered, and men without property who couldn’t vote except for I think--I learned from your book Pennsylvania, if I remember that right. So Zinn always--and I have I guess a little more empathy more that, is constantly writing about those are being crushed and forgotten and lifting up their history, which is why he was such a powerful force when I taught within that prison because this was the world that these people came out of and one of the things he does is hold up, which has been largely erased from the classic study of history are the slave revolts, which were numerous. And he writes--or you--your--in your--in your book, he says, “If we knew that history, we would know there’s a very deep and long history of cruelty in this country. That history is something that still lives with black people and still affects their lives.” So what he wants is, I think, to lift up that endemic exploitation and cruelty which has been with us from the beginning and never let us forget it because he sees it as salutary.
RS: And what’s also important about something like slave revolts, and that’s a great example, is that in 21st century America where someone who’s even known a slave is no longer alive. A couple of years ago, the last person born in a date with 18 in it died and I thought, wow, you know, because people’s grandparents were born then and great grandparents, not all that long ago but there’s no longer any human being on the planet who was born in the 19th century. There are--there are counter-narratives being spun that slaves acclimated to their oppression. They accepted their servitude. And if we had been taught in seventh grade, in tenth grade, in college, about the endless series of slave revolts, acts--small acts of rebellion every day, it would’ve been an important fact not only to correct the record in the 19th century, but to signal to black Americans and white Americans today that nobody gave in that easily. You can’t look down on this man’s great grandfather with a story of him just accepting the fact that he was probably…
CH: We’re going to come back to that. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about Howard Zinn with the journalist and author, Ray Suarez. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about Howard Zinn and the struggle for democracy with the journalist and author, Ray Suarez. So, before the break, we were talking about the numerous slave revolts, which were really consciously written out of history, especially on the part of the slaveholders because they didn’t want this information to spread. It’s why they didn’t want enslaved people to read because they didn’t want them to find about Haiti, the only successful slave revolt in human history. But I think that Zinn grasps, which I would agree with, that if we confront our true nature and the cruelty that we have inflicted, in particular on African-American people and indigenous people, and I think that that would include the pain of the reparations that they are--they justly should receive, it acts as a way internally, as white Americans, for us to put a check on the cruelty that’s there, that has been part of the American system. But if we deny it completely, that cruelty and injustice just perpetuates itself.
RS: Yeah. Well, it’s act of sort of exculpatory explanation and we see that now undergirding a lot of the debate over reparations. Somebody will say, “Well, my parents came here from--my great grandparents came here from Palermo in 1890, long after the United States had stopped chattel slavery so I’m no longer a shareholder and that part of the American Enterprise. This doesn’t have anything to do with me,” so white people who talk easily about a communal whiteness that is laudatory. They claim Thomas Edison even though their grandparents are from Palermo. They claim all kinds of people and say, “Well, this is part of the large body of cultural deposit of whiteness.” When there’s a problem, they don’t want to claim part of that heritage. The idea that there’s an American inheritance--and look at--it’s--you see it also in the arguments over white privilege, and whether such a thing exists. I think the way slave revolts have, been not completely erased, but just sort of turned into a sotto voce kind of exercise, tells you something about America’s continuing unwillingness to face up to the legacy of the 19th century.
CH: Right. And there have also been--you ask him about Bacon’s Rebellion. We can explain what that is. Shays’ Rebellion. These were--because there was a--I can’t remember the historian that was arguing that after the revolution of 1776, there was really a counterrevolution led by Alexander Hamilton, who has been resurrected on Broadway, to create a centralized government because they knew that that was the most effective form of repression, which is an issue you bring up in the book.
RS: These small rebellions--and a lot of them are against state government as well.
CH: Explain what they were, what they--it was taxation…
RS: Well, a lot of things had to do--had to do with paying cash taxes in order to hold land. And farmers were being dispossessed and kicked off their own land while people who had access to gold, to--had access to species in Young America through banks, which farmers were notoriously unbanked, were able to buy land that fire sale prices because of, you know, failure to pay taxes.
CH: And this was by design on the part of the oligarchic class.
RS: And also they had issues to do with the home production of various commodities, which were supposed to be bonded, which also carried with them taxation like alcohol products, which couldn’t be resold without a bonding. So the yeoman farmers of America in various places said, “Hey, no way,” and took up arms. Now, taking up arms, we use that phrase all the time now, it’s very popular now to have this fantasy that you can revolt against the United States government if it becomes too oppressive. In those days, not a lot of people had firearms because they were very expensive, hard to maintain, parts weren’t interchangeable so if they broke, somebody had to make a custom part to make it work again. It was a big deal to take out your birding piece and go run out there to join up with a hastily assembled militia and tell the tax collectors they weren’t going to take your taxes and they weren’t going to take your land in lieu of the cash taxes, tremendous, tremendous thing. And that moment lasts well into the 19th century when suddenly the opening up of what was called the Northwest Territory creates a pressure valve, so all these landless peasants can head west, dispossess the Indians, flood into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and change American history.
CH: He writes, or he tells you, “It’s a very common thing in history that people who are victims will turn upon one another.” I thought that was very smart of you to push this theme. Explain.
RS: They do not see the authors of their oppression as being the people in charge.
CH: Even today.
RS: Even today.
CH: Everyone out of that Trump rally, there’s--that’s a long continuum in American history.
RS: Right. It’s a--it’s someone who snuck across the border. It’s someone who’s working in a chicken plant a thousand miles away. This is somehow the author of your exploitation. This is the person you need to turn on. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve never had a successful class-based politics in this country because people cling to other master statuses as the way to think of themselves rather than a person who shares an economic state of being with someone very much unlike them, but they both face the same oppression. Zinn--this is a popular theme in Zinn’s writing. He returns to it again and again, an economic analysis class location, but also this terrible story of how working people become each other’s enemies. Whether it’s the use of immigrants as strikebreakers, which we saw in Pennsylvania coalmines, but we also saw in fields in California in the 1960s, when Cesar Chavez was trying to create the UFW. Whether it’s, you know, use of conscripts in war, whether it’s, you know, this--the stories are legion. But working people, dispossessed people do have a way of making each other their own enemies.
CH: Well, he puts race at the center, I think, of American history because race has been such an effective tool in the hands of the oppressor. And it has been and is.
RS: What could be more frightening? What could be more potentially devastating to a working class white person in America than someone who can undersell him and underbid his labor no matter what task he does, whether he’s a farrier shoeing horses, somebody who’s plowing out in a--in a field, somebody who’s slaughtering pigs and cows for people’s dinner tables, a landless desperate population with no income, which is what black Americans were through much of the 19th century becomes the wrecking ball to even your tenuous grasp on a salary, an ability to feed your children, put shoes on them, and all these basic, basic things that Americans were scrambling for in the years between mid-century and let’s say the 1870s, 1880s.
CH: You talked with Zinn about how the American Republic was formed and designed. And you elucidate--or he elucidates in his interviews how that construction was meant to oppress the underclass. You know, why do you argue for a constitution because the Constitution will create a representative government which will make it harder for rebellion to occur and will cover all the 13 colonies. He talks about how the Constitution was shaped in the fear of trouble, slave uprisings, uprisings by the poor, that--and again, we’ll go back to Hamilton, this is why you centralize power including military power to put down rebellions. And as Zinn says, as they said in one of the Federalist paper, “Filter the grievances of people through a body of legislators, the Senate,” and Senators at the time were appointed, “so that by the time the grievances made their way through the Senate, their bitterness would be softened.” This was not a mechanism for democracy. It’s certainly not popular democracy.
RS: It codifies the class relations of the late 19th century and make--rights them in stirring prose, and also in more sort of erector set fine print in the--in the Constitution, kind of the owners’ manual of the United States made by the people who owned it, incidentally. But Zinn and I argued about this to a degree because I said, “Look, you know, unlike France, we’re not on the Fifth Republic.” The genius of the Constitution is that our institutions are, to a degree, self-repairing. The Civil War was an aberration, not a central fact. We don’t have constant Civil War. That unlike other political orders, we haven’t had endless string of coups, and rebellions, and government overthrows because room is made, room is made, room is made. If you--we don’t use the 19th century definition of a citizen, we don’t use the 19th century definition of the franchise or even of humanity any longer. Why? Because in--history is both top down and bottom up. And the bottom up forces accommodation and change over time. He was having none of it. He said, “Look, that’s because they basically had to go to their version of war to make these things happen.”
CH: Well, he talks about the middle class--the creation of a middle class as an effective bulwark against rebellion. And I’m going to come down with Zinn on that one. I just want to close. Zinn talks about the failure of the populist movements and the radical movements because they poured their energy into politics and into national political campaigns.
RS: He saw politics, getting people elected to your state legislature, becoming mayor, or sending them to Washington as a very ineffective tool for exacting change, certainly, most certainly in the short term, but even in the long term. He says that--he says again and again, both in the peoples’ history and in our interview, that these are very muted tools for affecting change, and it’s much more struggle and rebellion that creates change. Only when the people on top are afraid and recognize that in order to save their own bacon, they need to change. Do they change?
CH: And I think history bears that out.
RS: Yes. Yeah.
CH: I’m going to come down with Zinn on that. I think our job is to make them afraid. That’s when they react.
RS: That’s true.
CH: That’s when they…
RS: That’s true.
CH: That’s when they find a moral center.
RS: Yeah. Maybe not a real one, but a useful one at the time.
CH: It’s not real but it’s useful.
RS: You know?
CH: Thanks, Ray. That was author and journalist, Ray Suarez, about his new book “Truth Has a Power of Its Own.” A series of conversations he had with the historian, Howard Zinn. That was great.
RS: Thanks a lot.
CH: That was good.