A Quick Follow-Up on Howard Zinn

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We're piling up the attacks on Zinn in the last thread. I just want to say that I feel really conflicted reading all of this, and felt the same responding to his argument. I think I said this at the time that he died, but Howard Zinn really did "knock me on my ass." I had never heard of the railroad strikes in the late 19th century. I didn't know about southern populism. I was 19 years old, and I really thought that the only people who'd suffered anything were African-Americans and Indians. 


Howard Zinn complicated the world for me. 

I hadn't recalled his take on the Civil War, but seeing that just made me really, really sad--like watching your father embarrass himself, or something. Or maybe it's me, I'm worried about. The various "progressive" notions that the Civil War was about "more than slavery," or that it was really just a power-grab by Northern capitalist, or that it was about "agrarianism," or that it shouldn't have been fought at all are all the sorts of things that, once, I would have nodded my head in agreement with. It is not at all rare for intelligent people, here in progressive New York, to see me reading a book about the War and decide to engage me about "black Confederates" or the "other" causes of the War.

These people are not Lost Causers. They are usually even more liberal than me. Before I dipped into this I had a vague sense that the War was about slavery. Nothing prepared me for how much it was about slavery--and explicitly about slavery. Nothing prepared me for how much the Confederates agitated for War. Nothing prepared for how much money there was in slavery.

It is not a pleasant place to live. It divides me from people who I consider to be intellectual ancestors--and not just over this. For if we find their thinking simplistic and overly general here, why not the same with the populists? With the railroad strikes? What else was simplified? 

I don't know. Perhaps the think to say is that I am happy I was knocked on my ass, to be thankful for that, and move forward.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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