Howard Zinn never looked kindly on people in power, but George W. Bush has fallen below even his lowest expectations of a president.
"History is not always wise. If history is wise, it will look back on the Bush administration as a disaster for the American people," said Zinn, who will speak at Westminster College tonight. "This will be looked back on as a very dark period in American history."
Zinn, perhaps America's best known practitioner of the "bottom-up" study of history, told the world for decades about the lives of everyday people, including minorities, women and the working class. As a left-leaning columnist and activist, he champions mine workers and sharecroppers rather than presidents and military leaders.
In the current administration, which he accuses of "blatantly distorting history," Zinn finds plenty of targets for his populist outrage.
"At this moment, we're not faring well. We have an administration in power which seems most concerned with the very rich," he said, noting Bush's tax cuts as an example of helping the wealthy. "And the environmental policies of the Bush administration are horrendous."
His latest target is the Iraq war, in which he says people from the lower classes suffer disproportionately. "The war in Iraq has been a disaster for ordinary people," he said.
Any historian will tell you it's important to study history. Along with the usual reasons -- understanding history helps us understand the present and avoid the mistakes of our forebears -- Zinn adds that history is essential to helping the common man understand when he's getting screwed by the upper crust. And he adds, after all, throughout history, that's what people at the top traditionally do best.
"There's a good reason for citizens to study history, and that's because policy-makers aren't going to use it even if they study it," Zinn said in a telephone interview from Boston, where he is a professor emeritus at Boston University. "To rely on the wisdom of the people in power is the worst thing you can do."
Zinn's seminal work, A People's History of the United States, was the first American history survey based entirely on the story of Everyman rather than the perspectives of the privileged and powerful. The book has gone through several revisions since its original publication in 1980.
Some have praised Zinn for bringing new stories to light, while others, especially conservatives, have criticized him for what they say is a strident bias against all institutions and individuals with power or money. Publishers Weekly called the book "a classic of revisionist American history . . . Zinn's work is a vital corrective to triumphalist accounts, but his uncompromising radicalism shades, at times, into cynicism."
The emphasis on regular people has changed how historians work and teach, Zinn said, using Christopher Columbus as an example. Rather than looking at him only as a hero who discovered the New World, we now also discuss the devastating results his arrival caused for indigenous people.
Howard Zinn speech
* Where: Payne Gym on the Westminster College campus.
* When: Today at 8 p.m.
* Tickets: $5; call 832-2119. The event is open to the public.
© Copyright 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune.