Why we need an unapologetic vision of our Nation’s past
For 40 years, American education and media has been dominated by systematic propaganda designed to undermine the story of America in the national collective consciousness – to “rebrand” the story of the country’s founding and our 247 years of history as a story of villainry, oppression, and crime. As a result, young people today see America as defined by the genocide of Indians, enslavement of Africans, and fundamentally characterized by racism.
No single book has been more influential in promoting this vision than Howard Zinn’s bestselling work A People’s History of the United States. First published in 1980, by 2022 the book had sold two million copies, and become a mainstay of the progressive worldview. Many of the talking points insistently repeated by progressive activists, and indeed, mainstream liberals, originate in Zinn. Evidently, his strategy has been extraordinarily successful and is therefore worth examining.
Zinn’s work is best-known for its beginning: a diatribe against Christopher Columbus. Although Columbus himself never set foot on the continental United States, the story of his daring voyage of discovery served as a load-bearing column in the collective understanding of the foundation of America. So Zinn aimed to destroy his legacy to discredit America as a whole. In the first chapter of A People’s History, Columbus is presented as a gold-crazed psychopath who raped, pillaged, and murdered the peaceful and egalitarian Arawak natives of Hispaniola on an almost incomprehensible scale.
When Zinn’s book was first published, this account represented a total inversion of the Columbus story, leaving readers stunned and generating considerable controversy. And yet this controversy served only to further popularize the book under the sign of imagined repression.
Zinn’s attack on Columbus was one of the first major offensives by leftist historians against the American collective consciousness, and despite some half-hearted pushback, it was wildly successful. The playbook has changed little since. Like similar propaganda efforts undertaken in the USSR and by the Chinese Communist Party, the strategy focuses on changing mental models and emotional associations of important central figures and events. Soviet propagandists tore down Tsarist monuments and replaced them with Soviet heroes, presented as the liberators of a nation oppressed for millennia. Traditional Russian history was inverted, and new proto-Marxist heroes were inserted into the narratives.
Zinn performed the same operation on American history; in the decades since his book was published similar efforts have targetted the Founding Fathers, pioneers, Presidents, and other symbolically important figures. Each time, the nation itself is called into question, and its moral foundations undermined. The current activist push of “Critical Race Theory” is only the latest chapter of this story.
After subverting and denouncing every admirable figure in American history, CRT aims to build a replacement framework, in which imposing “anti-racist” political policies involving reparations, affirmative action and the political disenfranchisement of collectively guilty “racist” white groups is the logical moral conclusion of all modern history. Ironically, conservative pushback is used to reinforce this claim, since it allows Leftist activists to present themselves as oppressed, and subversive – despite their cultural hegemony and dominance of education and increasingly the judicial system.
What would effective opposition to this enterprise look like? What it definitely does not look like is civil “debate” over “the issues”, as if emotional and aesthetic perceptions in general are altered through reason. Once a propaganda narrative of history has been effectively implanted, it is almost impossible to excise with facts. As infamous KGB defector and one-time professional propagandist Yuri Bezmenov put it: “A person who was demoralized is unable to assess true information. The facts tell nothing to him.” The problem is not intellectual, but psychological. Demoralize a man for decades, and no factual argument will change his self-perception; even when facts are accepted in theory, the frame remains negative and reasserts itself instantly once the “civil debate” ends.
Propaganda works by making endlessly unfulfilled promises that the revolutionary utopia is always around the next corner, that in order to achieve it just one more symbol must be torn down. Conservatives often operate under the premise that this “progress” can be stopped or reversed, but a study of 20th-century revolutionary movements shows this is untrue. What is actually needed in fact is not a defense of America, but a counteroffensive against the version of America produced by the Left. After forty years of iconoclasm, the story of our historical origins requires complete reconstruction. Just as Zinn undermined American history by striking at its roots, we must reclaim the mythical, propaganda value of America’s origins. Similarly, a new view of American history must begin by reframing the story of the European explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Instead of “reasoned debate” from within the leftist worldview, an entirely different approach to historiography is required – one that interprets the world through a Classical lens. If the United States is to maintain a self-image based on pride and truth, we need a way of thinking that recognizes the propaganda war being waged over the meaning of American history, but steps over it. A historical view which actively upholds Columbus, for example, as opposed to merely resist his destruction. Within this framework the subconscious and aesthetic associations of great men like Columbus must not be merely neutral, but positive and inspirational. If revisionist historical discourse aims to humiliate, we should use history to celebrate and uplift.
There is no shortage of inspiration in American history. In Columbus’ story alone, we see complex courtly intrigue, religious war, unshakeable conviction, incredible force of will – and of course, a world-historical feat of oceanic navigation. Columbus and his men sailed into the infinite distance, with no way home, and no idea where the winds would take them. And yet, after 33 long days of suspense… they not only found land, but conquered it. Zinn’s history downplays all of this in an effort to redirect the frame away from the aspirational elements of the story. Anything that may inspire the reader or galvanize someone into action is removed, and the gap is filled by scolding and political propaganda, aimed only to encourage self-hatred and inaction.
Columbus is only one small example; the act of stepping outside demoralizing approaches should be applied across history. Leftist historiography seeks to generate guilt by presenting a model based entirely on negativity and degradation; the conservative response over the past decades has hardly made a difference. It is time to be unapologetic about our history and create something more compelling.