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Howard Zinn, RIP

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.
Categories > History

Discussions - 27 Comments

There are conservative and liberal biases to history, we can all agree. Even so, most standard accounts are pretty good and can be corrected a bit in the classroom. Zinn, on the other hand, is ideological trash that is unworthy of being in any classroom or bookshelf except perhaps as a study of radical nuts who believe that there is nothing redeeming about Amerika.

I'm not even sure that a "People's History..." even qualifies as history. Its more like ideological mythmaking in which contrary facts and interpretations are removed in order to further the goal of indoctrination. Its closer to an Ann Coulter book like "TREASON" than anything else. They both sold more than most "real" history books of course.

I do seem to remember some articles by Zinn that seemed like "real" history. They were on the subjects of civil rights and labor history. I don't trust Zinn, but they seemed reasonable enough examples of "this is what these people say they felt and did" type history. I couldn't cite them since it has been over ten years.

A friend of mine credited his best joke about Zinn's death to Coulter: The leftists are burning their flags at half mast.

Walter Russell Mead has this interesting comparison of Livy and Zinn

Actually, I thought Coulter's Treason had some good legal material in it--not just polemic. Her calling Edwards a "faggot" seems moderate, in retrospect, doesn't it? (No one took it to mean anything about sexual orientation at the time.)

Was it Coulter who said that Zinn "died fo a bleeding heart?" Wish I had though of it.

I was thinking of her personal attack on George Marshall and such. Not on Marshall's policies per se, but on his motivations.

Pete, actually I meant her book on impeachment. The treason book probably conflates errors in policy with real treason.

Ken, I haven't read that one, but I'm glad to take your word on it containing much information that is both valuable and true.

On the anti-gay slur that Coulter used on Edwards. It seems to me that the main objection to her using that word to refer to Edwards had less to do with Edwards than with slurring a large group of people. Nothing Edwards has done or might do (and that would include homosexual behavior) would justify that expression. I do understand that such talk was acceptable until very recently and still is common as a kind of locker room or guy (or girl) talk, but there is good reason why it should not be part of our public discourse.

She said:

I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I — so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.

The last thing our 'public discourse' needs is more contrived p's and q's.

John, many thanks, that Mead essay is truly great! At first, anyone with the sense to hate Zinn and love Livy, that is, anyone educated to have good sense, wants to reject the comparison being made. But, the case is there. Moreover, the audiencefor Mead's essay is those open to Zinn (too few of whom have read Livy, unfortunately), I think. The essays winds up turning against Zinn in a big way, in favor of Livy-like patriotism IF it is moderated by Judeo-Christian self-limitation. Elites and nativistic pride you will always have, he says to Zinn, and patriotism is one of the few ways to channel them to something good. Thus, the key quote, which truly captures Zinn's true legacy--not of making very many Marxists, but of inculcating debilitating cynicism: "More often than not, Zinn succeeds as an iconoclast and fails as a moralist. The values he inculcates lack the psychological power of the myths he attacks; the net result is the erosion of the power of the values and causes that Zinn hoped to promote."

AD, substitute Edwards with Obama and the anti-gay slur with any number of anti-black slurs and I think the problem with what she said becomes clear.

No it don't.

She was conceiving of an insult directed at Edwards which identified him with a particular social group. She did not comment on the social group in question, although her remarks assume said social group is the object of disrespect. Whether and to what degree it should be are matters of dispute.

Nothing...would justify that expression.

Nothing whatsoever? We submit lawyers' briefs in defense of casual humor? Well, the Church teaches that certain acts are mortal sins and certain acts are 'intrinsically evil' or 'intrinsically disordered'. Some such strictures seem blatantly obvious (performing abortions), other derive from long reflection on ethical questions that is somewhat esoteric in our time (use of contraceptives). To state that using the character string f-a-g-g-o-t in the course of a lame joke is an inherently disordered act is a precept that lacks a certain majesty.

Unless, of course, you have been socialized into certain habits of thought. About forty years ago, Garry Wills offered that hippie protestors and the like had as an object reducing the 'social unassailability' of figures in authority, by doing things like shouting 'Daley sucks hump' in public parks in Chicago. Well, there are many in our time who have it that the homosexual population should have comprehensive social unassailability. While attempting to respect canons of civility myself, I will offer that I do not think it does anyone good in ought but the very short run to have such (most especially when Tony Kushner and Dan Savage get to slur anyone they care to). You wanna drink that Kool-Aid, Pete, go ahead. I think I will pass.

Carl, I posted the link without any comment, so I suppose the connection between Zinn and Livy looked ridiculous. I'm glad you appreciated it.

It is a ridiculous comparison, except in the way that Mead presents it regarding the distinction between "iconoclasm" and "moralism." You pointed to the crux of the problem with Zinn in your quote from the essay.

I have often wondered what Zinn (and Chomsky, Parenti, et al). were up to. Agreed, there have been many crimes and many problems bequeathed to us, but Zinn's historiography becomes--as you aptly put it--a "debilitating cynicism."

I seriously doubt there will ever be as an astute (if deeply problematic) interpreter of Zinn as Machiavelli was of Livy. Zinn leaves us nowhere because he in his own way only read Machiavelli and not Livy (let alone other writers).

AD, not understanding how the stuff about lawyers' briefs and mortal sin had much to do with using an antigay slur as a way to insult Edwards - and the problem of course is not that it is an insult to Edwards.

And I also don't think that the use of such slurs (in this kind of context) is justified by the meaness of the sayings or doings of Tony Kushner, or Dan Savage, or Michael Savage, or Randy Savage.

Hey fellas, I remember having read a Zinn essay on Machiavelli. Well its on the web. Here is the link.

I will simplify:

People are routinely insulted in public life. As a rule, it is not that important.

AD, never denied that. Its also not an excuse - or the end of the world.

Here's a good leftist critique of the leftist Zinn by Michael Kazin (I think he's the son of Alfred (?)--the Partisan review critic who wrote a decent historico-critical account of American lit called On Native Grounds).

Michael's book on the populist persuasion is worth considering too.

I should read on what I post. I read this essay because of the initial post! I'm stupid that way.

"Well, the Church teaches that certain acts are mortal sins and certain acts are 'intrinsically evil' or 'intrinsically disordered'."

- Last time I checked, Christianity also teaches the following:

"Judge not lest ye be judged." - Matthew 7:1

I have not proposed that either 'Pete' or Ann Coulter be stoned to death.

Yeah, I was talking about your willingness to "assail" groups incongruous with your belief, as if you held such a station that enabled you to do so. I'm not for PC either, but there are reasons that it was instituted other than building elements of the left to a level which is "unassailable." Bigotry is one of them, for example.

BTW, you should brush up on Scripture. You quote from John.

Owl, there is such a thing as moral and ethical judgment of acts (as opposed to judgment of souls or essences of a person). Common life is impossible without it. If that makes me a 'bigot', so be it.

I didn't say that you were a bigot -- I am just pointing out that PC wasn't just a liberal invention that popped up out of the blue. And come on -- there has got to be a more tasteful way of going about this. Each of us carries our own sins; some just happen to be more visible than others, especially in the case of Edwards, a political man.

And what exactly has moralizing in the sense that the GOP has gone about it done to help them politically? Bill Clinton wrought Governor Sanford, and would-be friends of the party now decry Republican hypocrisy.

Depending on how the Edwards situation is carried, the Republicans stand a chance of creating a not dissimilar situation. A more responsible response would be to let the watchdogs tear him apart, and then lament that a mere mortal let his vices dim literal self-government -- acknowledge that all men are open to such vile things -- and then prove to be better in deed.

I said we could be fairly laconic about Ann Coulter's tasteless jokes and that the sensibilities of homosexual men are not a matter so important that it calls for manufacturing categorical imperatives 'nothing could justify..." blah blah. How we got from there to your confused chatter about 'moralizing' I have not a clue. What the functional relationship is between Bill Clinton's sodomy kick indulged between 1975 and 1989 and an affair by Gov. Sanford a generation later I have not a clue. How we all got from a discussion of Howard Zinn's historiography to this mess I cannot understand either.

Happy trails.

Uh, no. You went off on your diatribe about how the last thing that we need are "more contrived p's and q's" (thus sanctioning Coulter's "joke"), reconstructed some right-wing conspiracy theory on the gay community, and we are.

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