The Zinn Effect: Lies Your Teachers Tell You

I am 59 years old. I lived through the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and all the rest of it. I went to middle and high school in the 1970s (these schools were racially integrated, for the record). This was in the South, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, right down the road from the Stones River National Battlefield. In that environment, I learned all about the history of colonization, genocide, slavery, and racism. I also learned about how the United States abolished the slave trade, fought a war to end slavery, and then passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended legal discrimination against black people in public facilities and businesses of accommodation. I learned about these things from my teachers and my textbooks and television shows. In 1977, the nation watched the miniseries based on Alex Haley’s 1976 book Roots.

Radical historian Howard Zinn’s intervention in A People’s History of the United States was not written to correct the “lies my teachers told me” (to riff off the title of a similar book by sociologist James Loewen), but to pump ideology into a system of progressive indoctrination. This style of conveying history tells folks what most Americans have long known as if it’s news. It’s a method of orchestrated forgetting and manufactured discovery. It makes the myth-maker appear as truth-teller. Alongside revisionism (what Zinn calls the other side of history), the progressive teacher prepares her student to hear the good stuff—if they hear it at all—as an exercise in bad faith.

From the programmer’s collection

Students come into my college classroom fresh out of high school recounting the horrors of America. A minority of conservative students sit, most of them, quietly, either having learned the futility of protest or self-censored by the harassment they have endured. The hip kids seem to be unaware that all that bad stuff they talk about no longer exists and hasn’t for a very long time. There is no progress in the history they learned. The arc of history was never bent because it was waiting for them to bend it. They are a special generation with special insight and a purpose. They have this peculiar quasi-religious/racialist way of thinking where timeless evil passes through our genes and they are its chosen exorcist. Rare is the teacher who fails to take up the progressive scriptures that prompt the congregation to say their “Amens.” Cancel culture works primarily by chilling the environment.

Why are historians and sociologists trying to make the younger generations think that nobody talked about this stuff until progressives came along and spoke truth to power? Why are teachers, administrators, and pundits acting as if critical race theory is merely the “accurate and honest teaching” of American history? (Have you see these memes?) It is acting. They know it’s not true. That’s why the schools hid the curriculum from parents for all these years, a deceit waiting to be exposed by the lockdowns that forced children to work from home (an unintended consequence, I assure you). Teachers and administrators warned the staff to be careful what they said online in case a parent happened to be walking by or wanted to involve herself in her daughter’s education. Teachers are taught to organize their lectures according to an Orwellian newspeak, the jargon of critical theory. It’s code. The deep assumptions, that all cultures are equal and no cultures are bad except Western culture, which is the expression of white settler colonialism, are smuggled in such concepts as “cultural relativism,” “cultural pluralism,” and “white privilege.” Opposition to the racist indoctrination of our youth is portrayed as the work of backwards gun-totting mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers trying to keep people in the dark about American history.

But who’s trying to keep people in the dark really? I have a PhD in sociology and hold tenure at a woke public university teaching in a program called Democracy and Justice Studies. I have been teaching college for more than a quarter of a century and have been a student for much longer. I’m an insider, educated during the moment when postmodernist epistemology was pressed into the social science curriculum. The agenda of the progressive left, which is to advance the interests of transnational corporate power, depends on those coming up looking at America and the West with disgust. Graduate students are trained to teach your children a history of Western civilization that makes their history and culture appear as awful as possible. Teachers learn to accomplish this by pretending as if the “real history” was never told and that the academic is the courageous light-bearer. That makes them mighty special. But the real history has been told. The adults in the room all know it.

The deception is rather obvious if you step back a bit. By pretending as if “real history” is concealed, progressive educators mean to indicate the presence of rightwing conspiracy to falsely portray America and the West as something about which citizens should be proud and eager to preserve. Chauvinism, nationalism, patriotism, and populism are very bad things. This ruse makes progressives—those who seek to deconstruct the nation-state, democratic-republic sympathies, and liberal freedoms and rights in order to clear the way for the entrenchment of corporate bureaucratic command and control—appear as brave and honest. They are the good people. They mean well. They seek justice. The work to straighten a crooked universe.

Slavery is shocking, to be sure. But this truth is so well understood that I hardly need to tell you why. You know why. You learned about it in school. However, when one learns that it was America that ended the slave trade almost two hundred years ago, and that only a few decades later sacrificed more than three-quarters of a million men to abolish chattel slavery itself (a system that existed in only one part of the country), that’s not very useful for those who for economic and political-ideological purposes need Americans to believe America is an awful country and for white people to apologize for things for which they feel guilty but couldn’t possibly have done. By orchestrating a forgetting of history by manufacturing the illusion of a fixed and eternal past that shines the worst possible light on white people, especially men (since, after all, white men have done a lot of good stuff—and no only for themselves), the propagandist makes the horrors of the past feel present and acute, offer the audience a corrupted world and polluting people in need of purification and redemption. He constructs quasi-religious myths as “white privilege” and “intergenerational trauma” and then proffers progressive doctrine as salvation.

What is being foisted on children is not history. It’s ideology. A new religion backed by corporate power. Parents are objecting not because they are trying to stop the truth from being told. They are objecting because they know lies are being told. They sense that a cult is trying to get their children, disrupt their common sense, and turn them against their families. Corporations have not only captured regulatory agencies. They’ve captured the public education system—k-12, the technical and community colleges, and the universities. And they’ve put to work advancing the agenda and legitimizing woke public education the media and culture industry they already own and control. Antiracism is corporate propaganda. It’s divide-and-conquer masquerading as “social justice.”

Earlier I wrote that they know what they’re doing. That was a bit of hyperbole. There are some elites so bubblized they actually believe the propaganda. They appear sincere on account of it. But many of them believe that you’re so stupid that you won’t see what going on. You ought to hear the way they talk about you. Sometimes they say the quiet parts out loud. You’ve heard it. But it’s the atmosphere inside the bubble. When you’re not so stupid (which is very often and also sooner or later), they try to cow you by smearing you as “racist” and “xenophobe.” They’re trying to shut you up and shut down your protesting because they mean to transform this nation from something they loath and despise into something you can’t love or cherish. Recrimination is an effective strategy. It worked to some extent on me. That and the atmosphere. I required some deprogramming. We are, after all, the ones who should be the most deeply indoctrinated.

I should have awakened to this in the 1990s. During my training as a graduate student I showed students in introductory sociology the film Manufacturing Consent, a 1992 documentary based on the 1988 book by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky of the same name. In the film, Chomsky, a linguist at MIT, is asked about the claim he and Herman make in the book that “it’s the primary function of the mass media in the United States to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector.” “What are those interests?” asks the interviewer.

CHOMSKY: Well, if you want to understand the way any society works, ours or any other, the first place to look is who is in a position to make the decisions that determine the way the society functions. Societies differ, but in ours, the major decisions over what happens in the society—decisions over investment and production and distribution and so on—are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations and conglomerates and investment firms. They are also the ones who staff the major executive positions in the government. They’re the ones who own the media and they’re the ones who have to be in a position to make the decisions. They have an overwhelmingly dominant role in the way life happens. You know, what’s done in the society. Within the economic system, by law and in principle, they dominate. The control over resources and the need to satisfy their interests imposes very sharp constraints on the political system and on the ideological system.

Chomsky is then asked, “When we talk about manufacturing of consent, whose consent is being manufactured?”

CHOMSKY: To start with, there are two different groups, we can get into more detail, but at the first level of approximation, there’s two targets for propaganda. One is what’s sometimes called the political class. There’s maybe twenty percent of the population which is relatively educated, more or less articulate, plays some kind of role in decision-making. They’re supposed to sort of participate in social life—either as managers, or cultural managers like teachers and writers and so on. They’re supposed to vote, they’re supposed to play some role in the way economic and political and cultural life goes on. Now their consent is crucial. So that’s one group that has to be deeply indoctrinated. Then there’s maybe eighty percent of the population whose main function is to follow orders and not think, and not to pay attention to anything — and they’re the ones who usually pay the costs.

For years, I didn’t internalize the truth of these observations—even though I knew as a student of Marx and Mills that they are true—until I left graduate school in 2000 and embarked on a journey of self-criticism. It dawned on me one day that Chomsky was talking about me. He was describing the world as apprehended by the methods of scientific materialism, only I forgot to put myself in that world and know myself in relation to it. I misheard my calling.

Think about these facts: The people of the United States abolished the slave trade, fought a war to end slavery, recognized the right of black people to participate in the political and cultural life of their country, and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended legal discrimination against black people in public facilities and businesses of public accommodation. The people of the United States recognized the right of women to participate in political and cultural life, to control their bodies, and of gays and lesbians to marry. And even though progressives want to take these rights from you, this is a country where you can still speak your mind and peaceably assemble with others to collectively voice your common grievances.

This is not an oppressive society. But the left wants to turn it into one. Don’t be a spectator to a world on the tracks to totalitarianism. You are riding on that world. What is Howard Zinn’s clever turn of phrase? “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Indeed. Let’s turn that clever phrase back on radical historian’s project.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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