Zinn and the Rhetorical Question

One of the problems with Howard Zinn’s People’s History is his insidious use of rhetorical questions. He is a very good writer, and makes excellent use of the his rhetorical skills to hide his poor scholarship in order to push his hard-left views. Most students reading this book (or excerpts from it) are going to be pretty average, meaning relatively ignorant of the topic at hand, unsophisticated in the identifying and use of manipulative rhetoric, not particularly critical thinkers, and are trusting that their teachers would not deliberately mislead them. They want to know what’s on the test, and assume that anything they are presented with is a valid and factual, if “alternative” account. It isn’t. It’s an anti-America polemic.

Rhetorical Question: noun, a question asked solely to produce an effect or to make an assertion and not to elicit a reply. Zinn uses them to great effect, not only giving himself plausible deniability on his actual making any specific claim, but also use them to imply things that, when properly and critically examined, assume many unsupported and unsupportable inferences and implications. He uses them to evoke emotion, not thought. He’s a manipulator, gaslighting his readers into hating themselves, their nation, their own history and people. And, even if that wan’t his intent (I’m not a mind reader, so I can’t say with absolute certainty), that is how many teachers are using it in the classroom.

An example: On pg 73 he asks “And how could people truly have equal rights, with stark differences in wealth?” Let’s unpack that. What is assumed, and what definitions are used?
What does he mean precisely by “people,” “equal,” “rights,” “stark,” “differences,” and “wealth”? Are the rights he’s referring to positive or negative rights? How much, percentage-wise and exactly, is “stark?” Can a man and woman be truly equal, when their biology is so different? What constitutes wealth- just money, money equivalents, land, family, slaves, knowledge, social connections? How do you balance the wealth of a farmer (land rich and cash poor) and a merchant (land poor and cash rich) when neither wants, nor can do, the other’s job? Inferred: until wealth differences are eliminated, we can’t have equal rights, and equal rights is a goal worthy so worthy it justifies any means needed to achieve it. Logical consequence: this will stoke resentment, envy, hatred, division, self-loathing, and is a built-in excuse generator for failure and bad behavior. Because work ethic, intelligence, talents, interests, physical abilities, disabilities, strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities are not evenly distributed, we will ALWAYS have unequal outcomes. Even Jesus said ” For you have the poor with you always,” (Mat 26:11) meaning this is a never-ending call for a social justice crusade. But the envy and division it causes can only destroy wealth, not create it, making everyone equally poor, or at least much poorer overall (and likely still unequal). It’s a cancer upon the social fabric, and the economic life, of a society to embrace this false dichotomy. It’s the worst parts of the Red Terror and Marxism.

Zinn uses these sorts of leading rhetorical questions in order to sow discord and envy, rather than unity and understanding. There is only one way that I can see it use this book honestly in the American classroom, and for the betterment of the nation as a whole, and the individuals in it. That is to let the students read the first chapter as written, really get into his message, and let his rhetoric really push his favored view. Then rip away the veil, show all the things he left out, misrepresented, and deconstruct in detail most or all of his rhetorical tricks and slights of hand, in order make the student feel betrayed and angry about being mislead in such a slimy, manipulative manner. It will teach them critical thinking and careful analysis better than any English class lesson that tries to do that which I have ever seen. Make the question the perspectives and motives of ALL their writers and sources, particularly of the educational-industrial textbook and curriculum industry.

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