Monday, February 1, 2010

Howard Zinn, R.I.P.

Howard Zinn died last week and we looked at his obituary and a brutal historical smackdown by Micheal Kazin.

Whether or not you are Zinn's fellow traveler on the left side of the political spectrum, Zinn's work is hard to call "history." "A People's History" is, no doubt, an excellent polemic and has radicalized a whole generation of activists. But historians have generally been very harsh at Zinn's selectivity and downright dishonesty about sources. We tend to want objectivity - we can make better analogies to the present and influence the future if we have a better understanding of what actually happened. Zinn approached things from the opposite direction - he knew what choices he wanted us to make for the future and then picked and chose the historical evidence that confirmed those choices.

“Objectivity is impossible,” Zinn once remarked, “and it is also undesirable. That is, if it were possible it would be undesirable, because if you have any kind of a social aim, if you think history should serve society in some way; should serve the progress of the human race; should serve justice in some way, then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity.”

History, in other words, is argument. And sometimes people don't play fair.

Liberal historians who support the objectivity agenda are harsh about their fellow traveler. As just one example, here's Sean Wilentz (from the L.A. Times) (bold faced emphasis mine):

"What he did was take all of the guys in white hats and put them in black hats, and vice versa.

His view was that objectivity was neutrality, which I think is a formula for bad history. Objectivity is not neutrality; it is the deployment of evidence and building an argument based on historical logic. That's how we engage in rational discourse. To see history as a battleground of warring perspectives is to abandon the seat of reason.

He saw history primarily as a means to motivate people to political action that he found admirable. That's what he said he did. It's fine as a form of agitation -- agitprop -- but it's not particularly good history.

To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased. But he ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great. That can't be true. A lot of people on the left spent their lives apologizing for one of the worst mass-murdering regimes of the 20th century, and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. You wouldn't know that from Howard Zinn."

It has been reported to me that several of your parents were annoyed at breakfast when I dismissed Zinn's work in historical terms. They are more than welcome to disagree with me - part of why I like having parents at breakfast is so that you can see that history is argument. If they prefer to just disagree with me in the car ride home, please listen to their points; we want to inculcate critical thinking in AP US history and you should compare and criticize my positions as much as anybody.

Here are links to the articles we did in class:

Zinn's Washington Post Obituary.

Micheal Kazin's righteous smackdown. To quote Isaac, Howard got merced.

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