BY MATTHEW HERBERT
For students of Orwell, Howard Zinn’s 1980 masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, provides an endless source of inspiration and reflection. All history writing, Zinn argues, is recounting facts. But choosing the facts to recount is shaped by ideology. So when you look back at the stories that historians tell–or when you want to tell a new story of your own–you must try to be critical and candid about which ideology is at play.
Orwell wrote that his only talent was a “power of facing unpleasant facts.” And this talent was not merely an idle form of pessimism. Orwell’s most militant attacks on the status quo were calculated, deliberate and, yes, optimistic. He saw around him a society of fundamentally decent people but who were blind to the mass thievery, subjugation, and brutality of colonialism, which provided their income. Orwell wrote over and over again that the English people’s comfort and gentleness–national virtues which he sincerely admired–were based in a widespread ability not to see what was right in front of their noses. He wanted them to do better.
Orwell was also devastatingly frank about his own ideologies. Near the end of his life he wrote in an essay that since 1936, when he had gone to Spain to fight for the republic, everything he published had been “propaganda” for social democracy. Of course he believed he was writing the truth, but he didn’t believe that any writer could work completely objectively: it was impossible to write about anything of importance, Orwell believed, from an ideologically neutral perspective.
From the moment you crack open A People’s History of the United States, you see Zinn exuding a kind of intellectual courage that would do Orwell proud. The standard view of American history is not factually wrong, Zinn writes, but it dissembles, overshadows or understates so many unpleasant facts that it ends up telling a deeply warped version of how our country came to be. Every single-volume history of the United States that we had been presented with before 1980 invites its readers to avoid seeing what is right in front of their noses.
All honest historians know, Zinn writes, of Columbus’s cruelty and greed in “dealing” with the native Arawak people of the West Indies. Columbus himself records that one of his first acts was to “take by force” several Aarawaks to interrogate them about the location of gold. He also records how he enslaved thousands of Arawaks and sent them back to Spain. Tens of thousands more were to follow. Many were simply massacred. Once Columbus landed on their shores, the Arawaks’ history became one of subjugation, enslavement and death.
The standard histories do not lie about such devastation; one historian even calls it genocide. Another says Columbus “had his faults” but must be remembered for his seamanship. What the historian accomplishes by this kind of subterfuge is, Zinn writes, worse than lying. The loyal historian
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. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and them to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important–it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world. . . . To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice.
To weigh and arrange the facts of history in a certain way is an ideological choice. And just as Orwell tells us plainly that his writings are all “propaganda,” Zinn tells us what his ideological choice is: he will tell the history of America focusing on the lives of the forgotten, subjugated, murdered, silenced and oppressed. Such a history may not give us a perfect picture of who we are or how our country came to be, but it would–and does–go a long way toward correcting a historical narrative shaped only by the ideology of conquest, money, and property.