Wednesday, March 03, 2004

A Visit from Howard Zinn

So, historian Howard Zinn lectured at South Kingstown High School yesterday. Hm. Before reading further, and only if you have the time, take a look at this excerpt from Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492 - Present. (This chapter covers the period 1945-1960). The conclusion to be drawn from this lengthy sample of Zinn's writing is that Mr. Zinn is essentially a Marxist. I don't mean to use that as a derogatory label, rather, I use it in the historical sense. (Of course, let me now contradict myself by pointing out that Zinn has admitted to being a member of the Communist Party of the USA in his youth). He believes in studying history "from the bottom up." An excerpt from the ProJo piece (only available in the South County Edition) confirms this:

Raised in a working-class family, Zinn said his political views were formed in the shipyard where he went to work after high school.

While there, he first became aware of class consciousness, of two distinct Americas -- rich and poor -- and of a lack of a cohesive national interest.

"If you want to understand what's going on in this world, you have to do so with a class consciousness," he remembers thinking.

It was a basic life discovery with far-reaching implications. It was the passing of a boy and the birth of an activist.

Like many in his generation, Zinn soon found himself in the last place any budding activist would choose to be, on an Air Force plane, dropping bombs on the enemy as a bombardier in World War II.

By the end of the war, Zinn said, his political leanings were sealed. He selected academics as a means of shedding light on world affairs and what he called a frightening American foreign policy.

This makes him sound like a working class historian of some sort. In truth, Zinn is a historian of the oppressed, which is different. He mostly ignores the middle class as he contrasts the wrongfully oppressed with those who are in power. The result is a false impression of society; a canonization of the downtrodden simultaneous to a demonization of those in power. As is obvious, when it comes to America specifically, most of those in power were the oft ridiculed and stereotyped "white males." Zinn was in the vanguard of those who created this stereotype.

As a Marxist historian, Zinn is enamored with "people," often forgetting that those people often held views similar to their "oppressors." In fact, they could be just as oppressive as their "masters." For instance, Zinn would focus on how the Spanish decimated the Aztec kingdom, ascribing racial motivations to the Spanish mindset. The validity of Spanish racism towards Native peoples is not in and of itself the point. That Zinn fails his reader by giving short shrift to the fact that the Spanish were assisted by other tribes who disliked the Aztecs for all sorts of reasons, like being human sacrifices, is to be noted.

Finally, Zinn's problem is that he consistently views history through the prism of the present. This anachronistic measuring stick almost always finds well-known historical figures coming up short in one form or another. Zinn's work is good in that he brings to light the past of many forgotten or historically under-represented groups. It suffers from his insistence that in order to properly illuminate these forgotten pasts, he feels the need to cast the shadow of doubt upon the historical reputation of those who held power over the "people." For Zinn, history seems to be a zero sum game. Is this the kind of person that parents want lecturing their children in school? Especially without someone else providing a counterbalance? I'll be interested to see if any parents react to this or if it will just simply pass by with nary a blink.

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