The historian and polemicist Howard Zinn died
this week. Bob Herbert of the New York Times
believes, as Zinn did, in the urgent need to address "the plight of working people in an economy rigged to benefit the rich and powerful." It's no surprise that he eulogizes
Zinn as "an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it."
It was a surprise, however, to learn from a link in the Matthew Yglesias blog that six years ago Dissent
magazine featured a thoroughly critical essay
on Zinn's most famous book, A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present
. In that article Michael Kazin wrote, "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?" The vast majority of people are good, and the ruling elites are wicked, but the virtuous majority gets hoodwinked and intimidated by the rich and powerful at every turn. There are only black hats and white hats for Zinn, so he winds up dismissing Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the New Deal, among many others, as frauds that pretended to help the common man but really did nothing more than strengthen the oligarchs.
Zinn was politically active since the 1930s, Kazin notes, and used his writing to make sure that the past "did its duty." Torturing the facts until they confessed meant, "By Zinn's account, the modern left made no errors of judgment, rhetoric, or strategy. He never mentions the Communist Party's lockstep praise of Stalin or the New Left's fantasy of guerilla warfare." As a result, his political legacy is "fatalistic vision [that] can only keep the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life." Zinn is gone, but conservatives can take comfort in the knowledge that by leaving disciples like Bob Herbert behind, he ensures that leftists will continue to be self-marginalizing for decades to come.