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A Power Governments Cannot Suppress Howard Zinn City Lights: 294 pp., $16.95 paper

January 21, 2007|Marc Cooper | Marc Cooper, a contributing editor to the Nation and a columnist for L.A. Weekly, is a visiting professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

PREEMINENT leftist historian Howard Zinn clearly relishes his role as the designated skunk at otherwise intellectually polite and delicately perfumed debates over the American past. That's what he repeatedly tells us in his new collection of essays, "A Power Governments Cannot Suppress."

In one, he boasts that, when invited by the Smithsonian Institution to help celebrate the "Good War," he chose instead to question not only his role as a World War II bombardier but also the entire Allied war policy. In another, he tells of accepting a place at a round-table discussion of the Boston Massacre only after promising to focus on other, more overlooked American bloodlettings, from Attica to My Lai. And in yet a third essay, Zinn admits that when he was asked by a Jewish group to speak on the Holocaust, he redirected the discussion to the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who perished in wars supported by the Reagan administration.

Zinn's posture as the self-appointed scourge of American jingoism will come as no surprise to the two generations of college students who have devoured his denunciatory "A People's History of the United States." First published in 1980 and with more than a million copies in circulation, "A People's History" has been a consistent bestseller, a textbook staple and what Zinn himself has called a "counterforce" to the "mountain of history books ... so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements."

The ethos of confrontation percolates throughout this new collection of Zinn's work. Maybe too much. To the degree that the book works at all to explain our recent past, it works only -- and narrowly -- as a partisan counterpoint to more conventional histories. Zinn's essays should be read in conjunction with more nuanced, intellectually complex and even opposing accounts. On their own, they're both a moving testament to his rather romantic, undeniably compassionate humanism and an expose of his egregious blind spots.

Some of the fault may lie with the collection's editors, who have failed to compile the 35 essays -- most of them previously published in the Progressive magazine -- in a coherent or logical order. Readers are yanked from Iraq to the World Trade Organization protests of 1999, to Hiroshima, back to Iraq, to Vietnam, to Mississippi in 1964, to Eugene V. Debs and on to last year's immigration debates.

There's some vigorous, vintage Zinn in here. In "Unsung Heroes," he strongly recommends that serious students of U.S. history should read beyond the usual iconography of Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and JFK. Why not devote just as much study to, say, John Woolman, who was protesting slavery even before the American Revolution? Or to Cherokee Chief John Ross, who resisted displacement of his people? Or to the feisty Emma Goldman? All worthy recommendations, all on a par with Zinn's warnings that we have been slow to recognize the ingrained institutional injustices that led not only to the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti and the jailing of Debs but also to hasty rubber-stamping of the Patriot Act.

But the closer we get to today, the less convincing he is. When it comes to the threat of armed Islamic fundamentalism, for example, there's an incongruous and certainly unwitting overlap between Zinn's views and those of a president he despises. Like George W. Bush, Zinn equates the invasion of Afghanistan with that of Iraq. Like the president, he alludes to both almost interchangeably. Bush does so to justify a failing war in Iraq; Zinn does so to argue that there should be no war on terror at all, because we are the ones principally responsible for the current global mess.

Citing Vietnam, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala as venues of modern U.S. interventionism, Zinn explains 9/11 and other Islamic fundamentalist attacks as essentially retaliatory -- predictable consequences of U.S. arrogance: "We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by the people who have been the victims of American military action," he writes. "Nothing justifies killing innocent people. But we would do well to see what might inspire such violence. And it will not be over until we stop concentrating on punishment and retaliation and think calmly and intelligently about how to address its causes."

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