Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Another view of Zinn

A few weeks ago, a mini-controversy occurred in South County when the far left historian Howard Zinn appeared at a local high school to speak, and no opposing speaker was in attendance, or planned. I attempted to bring to light some of the problems that I have with Howard Zinn's methodology, but a new article by Michael Kazin written for Dissent Magazine is a tough, critical analysis of Zinn's historical style, and much better than my quick, top of the head post. In this article, Kazin mentions that Zinn is updating his People's History to include a reference to 9/11. If you are familiar with Howard Zinn, ou had to know this wouldn't be good.
"The latest edition of the book includes a few paragraphs about the attacks of September 11, and they demonstrate how poorly Zinn's view of the past equips him to analyze the present. 'It was an unprecedented assault against enormous symbols of American wealth and power,' he writes. The nineteen hijackers 'were willing to die in order to deliver a deadly blow against what they clearly saw as their enemy, a superpower that had thought itself invulnerable.' Zinn then quickly moves on to condemn the United States for killing innocent people in Afghanistan. "

Kazin starts with this introduction:

Every work of history, according to Howard Zinn, is a political document. He titled his thick survey "A People's History" (A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present [NY: Perennial Classics, 2003]) so that no potential reader would wonder about his own point of view: "With all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance."

That judgment, Zinn proudly announces, sets his book apart from nearly every other account of their past that most Americans are likely to read. "The mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction-so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements-that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission."

His message has certainly been heard. A People's History may well be the most popular work of history an American leftist has ever written. First published in 1980, it has gone through five editions and multiple printings, been assigned in thousands of college courses, sold more than a million copies, and made the author something of a celebrity-although one who appears to lack the egomaniacal trappings of the breed. Matt Damon, playing a working-class wunderkind in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, quoted from Zinn's book to show up an arrogant Harvard boy (and impress a Harvard girl). Damon and his buddy Ben Affleck then signed with Fox to produce a ten-hour miniseries based on the book, before Rupert Murdoch's minions backed out of the deal.

But Zinn's big book is quite unworthy of such fame and influence. A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?

His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger's Web site than to a work of scholarship. According to Zinn, "99 percent" of Americans share a "commonality" that is profoundly at odds with the interests of their rulers. And knowledge of that awesome fact is "exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them-from the Founding Fathers to now-have tried their best to prevent."

I could excerpt all day, just read the piece. If you don't have the time, here's the conclusion, which includes references to many "left" historians who are more trustworthy than Zinn.

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.

This last prompts me to emphasize that "laypeople" who read history should always read it with a bit of skepticism. I didn't say cynicism, I said skepticism. More formally, it is called "critical reading." Just because a historian wrote something doesn't mean that it is fact. Nuances abound in history. As such, I would recommend that you do read Zinn's work, as long as you have a similar work, such as Eric Foner's The Story of American Freedom (which is also a bit left-leaning, but also referenced in Kazin's piece) handy to counter Zinn's cynical, anti-establishment, conspiracy-theory laden work.

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