Rethinking Howard Zinn

While reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power a couple years ago, I came across some information that required consideration. In the book Coates addresses some remarks made by Howard Zinn regarding the Civil War, which Coates had written about for The Atlantic. These are Zinn’s comments, made a few months before he died:

So, the Civil War and its aftermath, you know, have to be looked at in a longer perspective. And yes, the question needs to be asked also: yeah, is it possible if slavery could have been ended without 600,000 dead? We don’t know for sure. And when I mention these possibilities, you know, it’s very hard to imagine how it might have ended, except that we do know that slavery was ended in every other country in the western hemisphere. Slavery was ended in all these others places in the western hemisphere without a bloody civil war.

Well, that doesn’t prove that it could have been ended, and, you know, every situation is different, but it makes you think. If you begin to think, “Oh, the only way it could have been done is with a bloody civil war,” maybe not. I mean, maybe it would have taken longer. You know, maybe there could have been slave rebellions which hammered away at the Southern slave structure, hammered away at them in a war of attrition, not a big bloody mass war, but a war of attrition and guerrilla warfare, and John Brown-type raids.

Remember John Brown, who wanted to organize raids and a slave rebellion? Yeah, a little guerrilla action, not totally peaceful, no. But not massive slaughter. Well, John Brown was executed by the state of Virginia and the national government. He was executed in 1859 for wanting to lead slave revolts. And the next year, the government goes to war in a war that cost 600,000 lives and then, presumably, as people came to believe, to end slavery. There’s a kind of tragic irony in that juxtaposition of facts. So it’s worth thinking about, about the Civil War, and not to simply say, “Well, Civil War ended slavery, therefore whatever the human cost was, it was worth it.” It’s worth rethinking.

Jesus Christ, Howard Zinn. No it isn’t. The only reason someone would think that is if they placed a higher value on white lives than black ones.

I have a lot to thank Zinn for, as he and James Loewen are responsible for my awakening to the way history is falsified and mythologized in our schools and national narrative. And I agree, actually, with his premise in “Three Holy Wars”—that war is something we should question, especially when we don’t think we need to question it, because can war ever be good? His points about the Revolutionary War are absolutely fascinating, and I think they’re exactly the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves. But the Civil War ended legal slavery. It was not about founding a new country, it wasn’t about representation commensurate with taxation; it was about ending a horrifically brutal nationwide, generational, uniquely race-based system of enslavement, rape, theft, and dehumanization.

In the first place, I really don’t think there were other ways to eradicate slavery; exactly what was so sadistic about the American form is that it was, because it was race-based and therefore generational, more widespread and entrenched than any other form that had ever existed. Which Zinn would know.

In the second place, what Zinn’s argument does is wonder whether it was worth killing so many white people to stop those white people from killing and enslaving black people. And the answer is an unequivocal yes. Truthfully, I can’t see why we should mourn a single life lost on the Confederate side, because those people thought the enslavement of other humans was a cause worth dying for. I don’t say this idly; I know exactly which of my relatives would have fought for the Confederacy if we’d lived then instead of now, and it’s most of them.

“So, the Civil War and its aftermath, you know, have to be looked at in a longer perspective.”

Four hundred years of slavery followed by one hundred years of official oppression followed by fifty years of unofficial oppression, and that catches us up to the present . . . What length of perspective does Zinn think is necessary to process this information?

“And yes, the question needs to be asked also: yeah, is it possible if slavery could have been ended without 600,000 dead?”

You mean 600,000 more than the literal millions who’d already died in the centuries of slavery . . . ? Ohh, 600,000 white people dead. Got it.

“I mean, maybe it would have taken longer.”

Patience is an interesting concept to introduce into a conversation about American slavery, particularly when the one suggesting it is of the race that did the enslaving. I think Martin Luther King, Jr. had some things to say about white people demanding patience of the people they were oppressing.

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

“You know, maybe there could have been slave rebellions which hammered away at the Southern slave structure, hammered away at them in a war of attrition, not a big bloody mass war.”

So “mass” applies only when it affects white people, then? Because the system of slavery was a prettttty big bloody mass war—in which only one side was being warred against.

Every point Zinn made in this part of the speech demonstrates an absurd lack of understanding of the circumstances of the Civil War. Since he was an historian, and therefore already knows these things, what his speech actually suggests is a horrifyingly subtle racism that clearly, visibly values white lives above black ones.

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