January 29, 2010

Howard Zinn

Marc Comtois

It shouldn't go unremarked that radical left historian Howard Zinn has passed away at the age of 87. Zinn, Matt Damon's favorite historian, is best known for his A Peoples History of the United States, a controversial work that has generated mountains of debate within (and outside of) the historical profession. (He even caused a stir around here back in 2004 when he was invited to speak at South Kingstown High unbeknownst to many parents). Disagree with him or not, Zinn will remain hugely influential in the fields of history and political thought for years to come.

That being said, there is plenty of ammo to refute the Zinn-ites. Perhaps the most recent and thorough critique of the work was written in 2004 by Michael Kazin in Dissent magazine (no right-wing rag, that!). Kazin explains how Zinn has been a buttress for the leftist/progressive ideology of those who idolize him:

Pointing out what's wrong with Zinn's passionate tome is not difficult for anyone with a smattering of knowledge about the American past. By why has this polemic disguised as history attracted so many enthusiastic readers?

For the majority of reviewers on Amazon.com (381, as of February 2004), A People's History has the force and authority of revelation. "Zinn single-handedly initiated a Copernican revolution in historicism," writes "eco-william" from Oregon. Others rave about his "compassion and eye for detail" and proclaim the survey "a top contender for greatest book ever written." Zinn's admirers have a quick retort to conservatives who claim his work is "biased." Writes "culov" from Anaheim: "The book is purposely meant to be biased. It tells the story of American history from the point of view of 'the losers' because we all know that the winners write history. If you want something written from George Washington's point of view, go buy a textbook . . . those are as biased as possible."

The unqualified directness of Zinn's prose clearly appeals to his readers. Unlike scholars who aspire to add one or two new bricks to an edifice that has been under construction for decades or even centuries, he brings dynamite to the job. "To understand," wrote Frederick Douglass, "one must stand under." Although Zinn doesn't quote that axiom, the sensibility appears on every page of his book. His fans can supply the corollary themselves: only the utterly contemptible stand on top.

Many radicals and some liberals clearly want to hear this moral stated and re-stated. Even Eric Foner, whose splendid scholarship delivers no such easy lessons, praised Zinn's book in the New York Times as "a coherent new version of American history." The Story of American Freedom, Foner's own 1996 attempt to write a survey for non-academic readers, is far more scrupulous-and far less popular.

Zinn fills a need shaped by our recent past. The years since 1980 have not been good ones for the American left. Three Republicans and one centrist Democrat occupied the White House; conservatives captured both houses of Congress; the phantom hope of state socialism vanished almost overnight; and progressive movements spent most of their time struggling to preserve earlier gains instead of daring to envision and fight for new ideas and programs....

Perhaps the greatest flaw of his book is that Zinn encourages readers to view so formidable a force as just a pack of lying bullies. He refuses to acknowledge that when they speak about their ideals, those who hold national power usually mean what they say. If FDR lied to Americans about the threat posed by Japanese-Americans during World War II, why should anyone believe his prattle about the Four Freedoms? So there's no point in debating conservatives who prescribe libertarian economics, Victorian moral values, and preemptive interventions for what ails the United States and the world. All right-wingers really care about is keeping all the resources and power for themselves.

This cynical myopia afflicts an alarming number of people on the left today. The gloom of defeat tends to obscure the landscape of real politics, which has always witnessed a clash of ideologies as well as interests, persuasion as well as buy-offs and sellouts. Zinn fiercely details the outrages committed by America's rulers at home and abroad. But he makes no serious attempt to examine why these rulers kept getting elected, or how economic and social reform improved the lives of millions even if they sapped whatever mass appetite existed for radical change.

No work of history can substitute for a social movement. Yet intelligent, sober studies can make sense of how changing structures of power and ideas provide openings for challenges from below, while also shifting the basis on which a reigning order claims legitimacy for itself. These qualities mark the work of such influential (and widely read) historians on the left as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Gerda Lerner, C.L.R. James, and the erstwhile populist C. Vann Woodward. Reading their work makes one wiser about the obstacles to change as well as encouraged about the capacity of ordinary men and women to achieve a degree of independence and happiness, even within unjust societies. In contrast, Howard Zinn is an evangelist of little imagination for whom history is one long chain of stark moral dualities. His fatalistic vision can only keep the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life.

Further, historian Aileen Kraditor predicted the path that Zinn would go down ("American Radical Historians on Their Heritage"), as explained by Ron Radosh:
Kraditor began by noting that the first thing a historian has to do is respect “the pastness of the past.” She goes on to write that a new group of Left historians clearly ignore that. “I believe,” she wrote, “the judgement applies with particular force to those on the Left who have endeavored to find in American history justifications for and forerunners of their own party or movement,” and that many “have been interested in little else.” History, in their eyes, becomes a “cheering section as they root for the same victims or reformers struggling against the same Oppressors or Interests.” It is a conflict paradigm shared by both liberal and Left historians. They believe only that the people fight the elites, and they never ask about the “consensus about all the values and beliefs that really matter to the maintenance of the established order.” Instead of asking for examples of the people fighting the interests—as Zinn does today—she says the real question is “Who fought whom and over what issue,” and whether or not the fight affected “the basic structure of the system.” These are, of course, precisely the kind of questions Howard Zinn and his followers never ask.

Kraditor’s observations are so adroit it is as if she read Zinn’s book before he even wrote it. The Left historians, she writes, “have tended…to focus on Our Side’s heroism, dedication, love for
The People—non-historical qualities that they of course see in themselves and want their contemporaries to see in them. In both their views of historical events and their views of their own vocation as radicals they have often underestimated the importance of ideology as a mechanism of class rule.” When they deal with the radicals of the past they eulogize- they almost never discuss what the majority of the people believe or the ideas of the elites of the day. In fact, she argues, when the masses take positions they do not like, they simply see them as “obstacles to overcome, illusions to be dispelled.” They never look at their actual beliefs to see “elements of truth” that led common people in the past to not follow the radicals of their own day.

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There really is no debate about Zinn's work. There is only spin from folks whol don't like to be told the truth.

Posted by: Pat Crowley at January 29, 2010 11:48 AM

I was wondering if AR would make mention of Howard Zinn's transition to that big reeducation camp in the sky. And you came through!

I attended BU for undergrad in the seventies. Poli Sci major. Howard Zinn was the department chair. As you'd imagine, that department was filled with red diaper babies (in particular, a Prof named Murray Levin was of the same ilk as Zinn).

There was still a 1960's aura lingering through the air, and amongst the students who were what we'd now call "progressives," Zinn was a rock star.

I took one of his courses just out of curiosity. It was, uh, entertaining. He had groupies that followed him around and hung on his every word. Essentially a love-in. They had a uniform: scruffy beard (most couldn't yet grow a full one); Che shirt and black beret most of the time, 1960's retread Haight Ashbury attire other times.

If he had gone there, one can picture NEARI's Pat Crowley following Zinn around like, well, a duckling following its mother duck. He would have been a natural amongst Zinn's groupies.

I only went to some of the "lectures," which were really indoctrination sessions more than educational endeavors. Ditto why I only completed some of the reading list. All quintessential Marxism.

In hindsight I realized that even back then at BU (and what has now become widely acknowledged) -- "higher education" has largely been displaced by indoctrination -- and not just willful refusal to present competing ideas, but deliberate suppression of them.

I graduated feeling cheated - and to this day don't give alumni contributions to BU.

Posted by: Tom W at January 29, 2010 11:52 AM

My grandmother told me not to speak ill of the dead so I'll refrain from commenting on Zinn.

I will only say that he did great damage to American education and scholarship.

Posted by: BobN at January 29, 2010 12:54 PM

As historian Victor Davis Hanson has said,
" The world would enter into a hundred years of darkness without the United States."

And we need to look no further than Haiti today to recognize this truth.

Posted by: SeanO at January 29, 2010 1:24 PM

"There really is no debate about Zinn's work."

I think there is finally a statement where some of will agree with Pat Crowley.

Posted by: Patrick at January 29, 2010 1:26 PM

"that radical left historian"
Who would be considered "radical right"?

Or are there only radicals on the left?
I never hear folks talk about the "radicals on the right"

Some names please

Posted by: Olivo at January 29, 2010 2:02 PM

Olivo, you act as if "radical left historian" was perjorative. I assure that to those who agree with Zinn, it is not. But, that being said, the first one that came to mind was anti-Lincoln historian Thomas DiLorenzo (though he's an economist).

Posted by: Marc at January 29, 2010 2:49 PM

Comments like the one above about Haiti being evidence of "a hundred years of darkness without the United States" all too clearly illustrate why Zinn's work was so important and influential. RIP, Howard.

"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

Posted by: Russ at January 29, 2010 3:21 PM

The people who make sycophantic statements about him here are no surprise.
I think the world is better off with him gone-a man who crapped on his own country and shilled for communist mass murderers.Too bad he stuck around long enough to publish that abominable book.
People like Zinn have done a lot to destroy the fabric of this country.
I wish he had been made to live in some of those socialist paradises.
Russ and Pat-do you guys ever stop to wonder why people,plain people like us,risk their lives to come here?Many from these socialist paradises?
Pat-I think a lot of the illegals I had to lock up probably appreciated this place more than you.You have no clue at all how lucky you are to be an American.
Zinn enjoyed all the better aspects of American life while taking a dump on our history and traditions.Like most liberal "intelectuals".
Do you and Russ ever wonder why the homegrown promoters of socialist despots choose to admire them from the comfort of the campus?

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 29, 2010 4:21 PM

For instance, it is not news to me that some of the "founding fathers" were tax cheats, and would probably have been jailed if we lost the Revolutionary War. That is an interesting "factoid" but to be properly understood requires some investigation of the tax they were being required to pay. Was that tax necessary, or exploitive? If one assumes the "goodness" of government, this question may not arise in your mind.

As to early dealings with the Indians, much varies with one's view of them. Were they a "gentle people" or barbaric savages? Realistically what developed was that which historically happens in a clash of civilizations. Without doubt there were many incidences of barbaric cruelty on the part of the Europeans. Compare this to the current actions of the UN "peacekeepers" in Africa, pillage and rapine are common. Japan's Rape of Nanking. Modern Chinese treatment of the Manchu. The slaughter of the original Japanese by the current occupants of that country. The Arab slaughter of native Egyptians. Another example might be the institution of the British "Raj" in India. This was an example of the power of "modern" weapons against spears and elephants. Still, it has been said that before the British "India was not a country, but a place". Now it has a common language and the people can talk to each other, it also has a working democracy. But for the British, where would it be? Was the price too dear? Who can say?

He chooses to look at the Mexican American War as simply "expansionist". A simple view. Does he give any coverage to intended European expansion in Mexico and what we might have had to defend against. Some might say that the war of 1848 was a "pre-emptive strike". Shortly after that was a Hapsburg Dynasty was established in Mexico. How about the "Zimmerman Note" which expressed a plan to invade America through Mexico? All effective "war games" concerning invasion of the "zone of the interior" assume staging in Mexico. Our border with Canada is larger, but people learned the power of snow from Napoleon's and Hitler's invasion of Russia.

I express no personal opinions above, or here, I am only pointing out the difficulty in a historical synopsis. The great lesson of history is "if things had not happened they way they did, does not mean that they would not have happened at all".

If Newton had not "discovered" gravity, would it still not be understood? If Alexander had not conquered the world, would no one else have? If Archduke Ferdinand not been shot, would WWI have been prevented, or simply delayed? Ad nauseum.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at January 29, 2010 7:25 PM

I intended a preamble to the post above:

"A Peoples History of the United States", is no more or less suspect than anything else with "Peoples", such as the People's Republic of China.

It doubtless has a point of view, and may provide insights not available elsewhere. Still it must be read cynicism and discretion.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at January 29, 2010 7:27 PM

My grandmother told me not to speak ill of the dead so I'll refrain from commenting on Zinn.

I will only say that he did great damage to American education and scholarship.

Posted by BobN at January 29, 2010 12:54 PM

Didn't learn too well did you....what about an answer.

Posted by: Phil at January 29, 2010 8:38 PM

Like my fellow Terrier Tom W., I don't contribute to my alma mater, either.
And I won't until the day John Silber's casket drops - I don't believe he still doesn't call the shots.
I never took Zinn's class, and only read his book a few years ago. But I remember him fondly for his campus battles with Silber, an arrogant twit who caused plenty of arguments at home (my father thought he was the greatest thing to happen to higher education since moveable type - I begged to differ. Thank God Massachusetts voted Republican for governor in '90 and spared the state the kind of intellectual quackery he dealt students whenever he opened his mouth).
If a man can be measured by those who consider him an enemy, Howard Zinn was a giant. (And if he ran BU, I'm sure we'd still have a football team - Silber is probably the only Texan on God's green earth who hates football).

Posted by: rhody at January 30, 2010 12:32 AM

So when are you moving to Venezuela Rhody?

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 30, 2010 5:23 AM

The above remark was made based on Zinn's adulation of Chavez.He also admired Mao.Mao killed more civilians than Hitler or Stalin(another Zinn hero),but that's no biggie,right Rhody?
If Zinn is measured by those who praise him on this site,he's a midget.Or was.
A day needs to come when these useless America-haters in academia are no longer enabled.Indoctrination has to give way to education.
Prof.Schmeling,who regularly comments here,and with whom I seldom agree, has said essentially the same thing-a professor shouldn't bring his personal politics into the classroom.I have no reason to believe he doesn't adhere to his own advice.

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 30, 2010 10:17 AM

Zinn proclaimed his view of history that of the working man. Yet the television program outlining A People's History used some of America's most wealthy celebrities to sell it. The ultimate hypocrisy must belong to those who make themselves rich while attacking the country, and its economic system, that allowed such success.

Posted by: mikeinri at January 30, 2010 11:12 AM

Rhody writes:
"And I won't until the day John Silber's casket drops - I don't believe he still doesn't call the shots."

I have no personal association with Silber, but I do recall one statement that he made. "When we decided that everyone should graduate from high school, we made an implicit decision to lower the standards".

I think he was correct in that. Who places any value on a high school education anymore? It has been severely devalued. Granted "honor students" in "honors programs" may learn something. But, you can "graduate" by just putting in your time.

We have invented the Community College as remedial high school.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at January 30, 2010 12:18 PM

Joe, what do I need to go to Venezuela for? Chavez is allowed to buy American politicians under the new Supreme Court ruling on campaign contributions.
Talk about the law of unintended consequences...those who applauded the decision should've thought about that.

Posted by: rhody at January 30, 2010 2:32 PM

--"Joe, what do I need to go to Venezuela for? Chavez is allowed to buy American politicians under the new Supreme Court ruling on campaign contributions."

You mean like how the Riaddy's and Chinese bought Clinton?

Posted by: Ragin' Rhode Islander at January 30, 2010 3:14 PM

Rhody, thanks for proving my definition. If you read the SCOTUS decision or any responsible commentary on it, you would know that it explicitly does not foreign entities to engage in political advertising or contributions.

Posted by: BobN at January 30, 2010 3:24 PM

Rhody-Chavez already owns Joe Kennedy,although he doesn't hold office any longer.
My point was that if you adhere to Zinn's teachings,you shouldn't be a hypocrite like him and actually live in a "people's paradise"-don't worry,you can always run home when you find out you have to wait in line to take a crap in the communal toilet.Since you were never in the military,it would be a new learning experience for you.

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 30, 2010 5:46 PM

The crazy thing about Zinn is that he is like Hermann Goering-both men were wartime fliers,neither came from any fancy background,and both took up opposite,yet equally destructive sets of beliefs-Nazism and communism.
The fact that Zinn did some decent things like serve his country and put himself in the civil rights struggle,and the fact that he worked at some dirty,hard jobs doesn't negate the damage his writings did to young minds.
Some people in the Neo-Nazi movement have similar backgrounds.(Not in the civil rights struggle).
I'll never understand any of them.
Radicals of any stripe are destructive to society.

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 30, 2010 6:16 PM

Joe, I urge you to correct your incorrect impression that Nazism and Communism are opposites. They are not. In fact, they are more like first cousins, possibly even half-siblings.

Posted by: BobN at January 30, 2010 7:48 PM

Yes-but they tend to clash,like many half and full siblings.
You're not wrong.
They are similar in political psychology,except nazism/fascism tends to be narrower and more nationalistically or racially oriented.Communism has an international component as a basic tenet.
What they both share is overwhelming governmental intrusion into private lives and a similar level of oppression.
Radicals are always after the "impure" elements in their movements,hence the periodic "purges".
Some isolated fascist regimes like those in Spain or Portugal tended to be more stable.
The Nazis had a massive purge of the SA,often called the "Night of the Long Knives".
Russia and China were conducting purges as frequently as they changed their shorts(okay,not really,but pretty close).

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 30, 2010 8:29 PM

So Joe, you will agree that both are (were) manifestations of the same Leftist totalitarianism from which American Progressivism sprung?

Posted by: BobN at January 31, 2010 8:08 AM

--"Joe, I urge you to correct your incorrect impression that Nazism and Communism are opposites. They are not. In fact, they are more like first cousins, possibly even half-siblings."

Indeed. Ultimately fascism, communism, socialism and progressivism are all just subsets of collectivism.

The book "Liberal Fascism" does a thorough job of documenting the intellectual cross-breeding (and mutual admiration between) American progressives (then liberals and now progressives again) and fascists. In fact, they adored Mussolini.

The fascists and communists didn't see themselves as enemies, but as competitors for the same intellectual market and unwashed masses.

Glenn Beck is even covering this a bit -- he even had three historians on last Friday discussing the subject of the origins of American Progressivism in the early part of the 20th century (he's worth DVR-ing in order to watch later in the evening).

Posted by: Ragin' Rhode Islander at January 31, 2010 9:34 AM

Yeah guys-collectivism is the common thread-the herd mentality-the idea that we need an elite to think for us.An elite that itself won't be subject to the anthill they want us in.
Why do you think they push gun control?Crime prevention?Bullcrap.It is to ensure docility.Compromise with "progressives"is a losing proposition.

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 31, 2010 10:26 AM
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