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Trump’s White House History Conference, Howard Zinn, and the US Supreme Court

September 22, 2020

Last Thursday, the Trump Administration held the first ever White House Conference on American History. The President himself, spoke at the conference and shared these opening remarks: 

Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.

While many people who identify as progressives, found these comments from Trump to be what they have come to expect from a neo-fascist, they are a reflection of what every US administration has believed about the US. In fact, while speaking at the US Military Academy in 2015, former President Barack Obama stated, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” 

Now, there are lots of people who found Trump’s comments at the White House Conference on American History to be appalling, especially when he criticized the 1619 Project and the radical historian, Howard Zinn. Trump said of Zinn:

Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.

What Trump, those in power and their followers fail to understand is that Zinn was attempting to challenge the official narrative about US exceptionalism. In addition, Zinn did not want students to be ashamed of the history of the US, but to present history from the perspective of people that the official narrative often leaves out or marginalizes. In fact, Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, provides a critical assessment of US exceptionalism, while at the same time presenting US history from the ground up. Howard Zinn’s work doesn’t teach students to be ashamed of US history, it introduces people to the rich history of popular social movements that have been the primary agents of change in US history.

Systems of power and oppression never want us to think critically about history, they only want us to accept the dominant narrative that provides justification for US exceptionalism. Those with power, like Trump, do not want us to acknowledge that the US was founded on the pillars of genocide and slavery. Those with power also don’t want us to know about the transformative nature of social movements, movements that have given us whatever rights and freedoms we enjoy today. Slavery was not ended by a US President, it was ended by the abolitionist movement. Workers did not win better wages, benefits and protections against exploitation because of bosses, but because of organized workers that formed unions. The Civil Rights/Black Freedom Movement did not make gains because of what those in power gave them, they won greater freedoms by fighting systems of White Supremacy. We can look at any example of whatever social progress that has been made, and see that social movements are behind whatever progress we have made.

The US Supreme Court

Within days of Trump’s White House History Conference pronouncements, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Over the past few days there has been an outpouring of grief from people over the loss of Justice Ginsburg, not only because of who she was, but also because of concerns about when to replace her seat on the court.

While the concern of when and who will be nominated to take Ginsburg’s seat is a legitimate an urgent one, it is also important that we grapple with the issue of why the US Supreme Court has the power that it does. Here I will refer again to radical historian Howard Zinn, who wrote an excellent article in The Progressive magazine in 2005, while Congress was fighting over Supreme Court nominations. Zinn wrote:

When the Constitution gets in the way of a war, it is ignored. When the Supreme Court was faced, during Vietnam, with a suit by soldiers refusing to go, claiming that there had been no declaration of war by Congress, as the Constitution required, the soldiers could not get four Supreme Court justices to agree to even hear the case. When, during World War I, Congress ignored the First Amendment’s right to free speech by passing legislation to prohibit criticism of the war, the imprisonment of dissenters under this law was upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court, which included two presumably liberal and learned justices: Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis.

It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.

What Zinn is doing in this article, it to challenge us to think about power, particularly systems of power. Too often we assume that since this is the political system we have, we just have to embrace it. However, Zinn knew all too well that anything is possible as long as people are organized to fight for something better. In that same article from 2005, Zinn went on say: 

Still, knowing the nature of the political and judicial system of this country, its inherent bias against the poor, against people of color, against dissidents, we cannot become dependent on the courts, or on our political leadership. Our culture–the media, the educational system–tries to crowd out of our political consciousness everything except who will be elected President and who will be on the Supreme Court, as if these are the most important decisions we make. They are not. They deflect us from the most important job citizens have, which is to bring democracy alive by organizing, protesting, engaging in acts of civil disobedience that shake up the system.

No Supreme Court, liberal or conservative, will stop the war in Iraq, or redistribute the wealth of this country, or establish free medical care for every human being. Such fundamental change will depend, the experience of the past suggests, on the actions of an aroused citizenry, demanding that the promise of the Declaration of Independence–an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–be fulfilled.

This too, is the legacy of Howard Zinn, to move beyond the liberal/conservative framework and fight for a different kind of world, a world striving for collective liberation!

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