Smarter conservatives winced when Francis Fukuyama made his declaration that the closing decade of the 20th century marked the “end of History.” But their disquiet was nothing compared with the sheer wretchedness of those who had spent the prior decades hoping history would progress ever leftwards. When Fukuyama pronounced the endpoint of History, classical liberals publicly accepted the compliment while privately affirming that nothing on this earth is permanent; at the other end of the spectrum, the Marxists looked disconsolately at the emerging storyline and saw that it was dominated by the conceits of their enemies.
In defeat, though, comes opportunity. Some were troubled by the very presence of a zeitgeist in which a man might announce to much acclaim that it was time to accept the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” and they understood Fukuyama’s quixotic assessment as a call to arms. “What do we do now?” they asked. “Well, the same thing we do every night, Pinky,” was the answer. “We try to take over the past!”
The Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Oliver Stone Account of Things Past — let’s call this “Zinnism” for brevity’s sake — bubbles up from time to time. The latest contribution to the canon is filmmaker Oliver Stone’s new ten-part documentary, An Untold History of the United States. Stone’s series suffers from the dual afflictions of being neither “untold” nor a “history,” but, given that neither deficiency impedes its purpose, this doesn’t really matter. Propaganda need not be pure.
In its most modern incarnation, Zinnism is primarily a reaction to the abject failure of socialism, that pernicious ideology to which the American ideal has been an implacable foe, both in theory and in practice. Ultimately, Marxism and its attendant philosophies are faith positions, and the rewriting of their legacies is an exercise in apology by which the true believer attempts to show that his favored prophecies did not fail to come to fruition. By revising socialism’s execrable record, the Zinnist attempts to demonstrate that History’s losers did not fall onto the proverbial ash heap through any fault of their own, that the victors enjoyed no worthwhile victory, and that — if you squint — the morality play is being remembered upside down. This is not new: Walter Duranty was doing this — in real-time no less — as early as the 1930s.
Distressingly, the seminal rewriting of American’s past, A People’s History of the United States, has sold more than 2 million copies. It is, it seems, America’s best-selling work of history — “history,” perhaps — and it has increased its annual sales each and every year since its publication in 1980. Nonetheless, its message has remained an intellectual undercurrent — the preserve of unlettered students, Internet leftists, and pseudo-philosophers. As if to aim a blow to that bruise, it has also become something of a joke: This year, A People’s History was voted one of the ten “least credible history book[s] in print” by the History News Network, sharing the questionable accolade with such works of arrant nonsense as David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies and Gavin Menzies’s 1421: The Year China Discovered America. Move these books to the Fiction section please, librarian.
Conservatives reflexively concerned by the commercial popularity of Zinnism should buck up. Upon Zinn’s death, David Horowitz wrote that his “wretched tract . . . is worthless as history, and it is a national tragedy that so many Americans have fallen under its spell.” “Zinn’s life work,” Horowitz continued, “was a pernicious influence on the young and ignorant, with destructive consequences for people everywhere.” Horowitz’s sentiment is admirable and his contempt fair. But he has considerably exaggerated Zinn’s impact (if not his intent). “My life,” Zinn told a classroom full of Harvard undergraduates shortly before his death, “has been devoted to rolling my little apple cart into the marketplace of ideas and hoping that I don’t get run over by a truck.” Still, for all Zinn’s sales, he has been essentially squashed — not least by the very future that he sought to shape. Why does Oliver Stone need to make another “untold story”? Not because the radical counter-history remains untold, but because it remains widely unappreciated.
Happily, this looks unlikely to change. As Stone well knows, the appeal of Zinnism rests on its remaining unappreciated, as it is primarily for this quality that it sells. Why? Because to those susceptible to such things, the “radical” rewriting of history is interesting and edgy, carrying with it the perverse imprimatur of the illicit, and satisfying that thoroughly modern need for a wildcat James Dean type to come onto the stage and rebel against anything and everything. “Hey, you think your history and country are great?” the Zinnite asks, cigarette hanging at a jaunty angle from his mouth. “Well, actually, they’re not. They’re all lies, and — unlike me — you are a dolt who has bought into the mythology.”
To many, especially those whose knowledge and intellectual confidence are not in proportion, this is catnip. People of all stripes enjoy knowing things that others don’t know or — better — that others can’t know. Along with the remainder of their baleful ilk, Zinn, Stone, and Chomsky rely upon a trade secret of gurus everywhere: Flatter your acolytes by promising them hidden truths that their ignorant fellow citizens will never discern.