The latest instance of pissing on Howard Zinn’s grave came from Jill Lepore, a history professor at Harvard (of course) and a regular contributor to the New Yorker Magazine (of course again) where she wrote:
Every fall, the freshmen troop into town tugging laundry bags stuffed with extra-long fitted sheets and trunks packed with aspirations, Scrabble, and socks. The next week, when they gather around the seminar table with their laptops cocked, the brashest are the kids who read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” in high school. It got them thinking and gave them something to argue about, aside from how to cram for the AP and whether the DBQ ought to count for more than the multiple choice. Zinn doesn’t come up in scholarly journals, but he introduced a whole lot of people who hadn’t thought about it before to the idea that history has a point of view. Kids can figure this out all on their own, but it’s nice to read it in a book. I suspect that reading “A People’s History” at fourteen is a bit like reading “The Catcher in the Rye” at the same age (history’s so goddam phony): it’s swell and terrible and it feels like something has ended, because it has.
Zinn wanted to write a people’s history because he believed that a national history serves only to justify the existence of the nation, which means, mainly, that it lies, and if it ever tells the truth, it tells it too fast, racing past atrocity to dwell on glory. Zinn’s history did the reverse. Instead of lionizing Andrew Jackson, he mourned the Cherokee. The problem is that, analytically, upending isn’t an advance; it’s more of the same, only upside-down. By sophomore year, the young whippersnappers have figured that out, too, which can be heartbreaking to watch, but it doesn’t make them any less grateful for what Zinn taught them, or any less fond of him for having braved it. Come September, the freshmen will be back, Zinn on their Kindles, zeal in their striped messenger bags, and I’ll be awfully glad to see them.
These are the same talking points made by Georgetown University professor Michael Kazin and co-editor of Dissent Magazine in the Guardian:
Unfortunately, Zinn’s big book is stronger on polemical passion than historical insight. For all his virtuous intentions, Zinn essentially reduced the past to a Manichean fable and made no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about US history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?
Now I don’t know if Zinn did or did not address why Americans “accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live” but I have no problem explaining Kazin’s accepting such legitimacy since he is a prime example of how privileged academics, journalists and trade union bureaucrats adopt social democratic politics that put them in bed with the U.S. ruling class, a story that goes back to the late 19th century at least. The magazine Dissent that Kazin co-edits with Michael Walzer serves as a mouthpiece for such rotten politics.
To give but one example, Michael Walzer is a defender of torture in the same terms as Alan Dershowitz and Rush Limbaugh:
Back in the early 1970s, I published an article called ‘Dirty Hands’ that dealt with the responsibility of political leaders in extreme situations, where the safety of their people seemed to require immoral acts. One of my examples was the ‘ticking bomb’ case, where a captured terrorist knows, but refuses to reveal, the location of a bomb that is timed to go off soon in a school building.
Both Kazin and Walzer have used the pages of Dissent Magazine to launch ideological missiles at Zinn. Here’s an excerpt from my response to Walzer’s attack on Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” in Dissent Magazine 6 years ago:
The interesting thing, of course, is that despite Zinn’s support for Kerry this year, he still gets mud flung at him because his history of the USA is replete with examples of Democratic Party treachery, including that which occured during FDR’s presidency, a kind of Golden Age for social democrats like Walzer.
Walzer seems particularly miffed that FDR would be depicted as a warmonger in Zinn’s book:
Of course, as an imperial bully, the United States had no right, in World War II, “to step forward as a defender of helpless countries.” Zinn thinks the meaning of the biggest war in history down to its meanest components: profits for military industries, racism toward the Japanese, and the senseless destruction of enemy cities-from Dresden to Hiroshima. His chapter on that conflict does ring with a special passion; Zinn served as a bombardier in the European theater and the experience made him a lifelong pacifist. But the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and his aides were motivated both by realpolitik and by an abhorrence of fascism seems not to occur to him.
One can certainly understand why WWII would loom large in the calculations of somebody like Walzer. Along with the European Social Democracy, they cheered on the bombing of Yugoslavia under the rubric of “stopping fascism”. Milosevic was the latest Hitler, who was necessary to stop in his tracks unless we would risk another Chamberlain appeasement. It is most odd that the USA, which has had military bases all over the world backing up ruthless dictators since WWII, would be seen in this light today. Most reasonable people that observed consistent US support for the Pinochet, Thieu, Suharto and Rhees of the world might conclude that an “abhorrence of fascism” is the last thing on the minds of American presidents. But, of course, people like Walzer are not reasonable. They are hysterical opponents of the barbarian enemy who threaten US interests everywhere in the world.
I imagine that most people have heard Woody Allen’s joke about Dissent Magazine in “Annie Hall” but I love to repeat it every chance I get:
Alvy Singer: I’m so tired of spending evenings making fake insights with people who work for “Dysentery.”
Alvy Singer: Oh really? I had heard that “Commentary” and “Dissent” had merged and formed “Dysentery.”
The last piss-ant worth mentioning is Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University professor who bad-mouthed Zinn in the AP obit and detracted further in the Los Angeles Times:
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.
I must say that I am quite surprised that a Princeton professor would allege that Zinn’s writings would lend support to the proposition that Lincoln did not free the slaves. You learn something new every day, especially from big-time Ivy League professors.
Even more tawdry is the charge that Zinn had something to do with “apologizing for one of the worst mass murdering regimes of the 20th century.” Giving the pinhead Wilentz the benefit of a doubt, we can probably assume that he was only accusing Zinn of being a Stalin fan rather than of Hitler.
Anybody who takes the trouble to do five minutes of research on the Internet using “Zinn” and “Stalin” will turn up something like this, an excerpt from Zinn’s preface to Daniel Singer’s “Deserter from Death”. Singer was a life-long opponent of the Soviet bureaucracy and in particular a supporter of Solidarity in Poland:
This independence of dogma did not mean that he held no solid positions in the social struggles happening all around him. On the contrary, what stands out as you read Daniel Singer’s work is his unshakable commitment to the idea of socialism, but a socialism uncorrupted either by Stalinist cruelties or by liberal timidity in the face of capitalist power.
He had no use for those who called themselves “Communists” but violated the spirit of a humanistic communism by behaving like thugs. Khrushchev’s startling revelation of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow led Togliatti and the Italian Communist Party to break with the Soviet Union. And other Communists around the world were shaken. In the United States, many members of the Communist Party left as a result of Khrushchev’s speech, and the invasion of Hungary later that year.
One imagines that in order to get tenure in the history department at Princeton, you have to learn how to twist things into a proper pretzel, especially when it comes to turning a great American radical into a wicked tool of the Kremlin.
Finally, to return to the regrettable Professor Lepore, whose book on King Phillip’s War in Massachusetts sits on my bookshelf at home. I am fairly sure that she was more of a liberal when she was young, but years of working at Harvard and for the New Yorker do have a tendency to wise careerists up. She writes that “Zinn doesn’t come up in scholarly journals”, as if that would matter to somebody who once told a student that learning the truth about American history requires time spent at the library doing your own research rather than sitting in a classroom.
She also complains that “Instead of lionizing Andrew Jackson, he mourned the Cherokee”. One wonders why this is such a problem, keeping in mind that Jackson was responsible for the genocidal forced march of the Cherokees to Oklahoma. One supposes that Professor Lepore is capable of such an ill-considered remark only because her tenure at Harvard has taught her the ropes about how to get ahead in the academy: become sophisticated in the process of shedding your principles.
I imagine that the abuse directed at Zinn from her, Kazin, Walzer and Wilentz is ultimately explained by their own conflicted feelings about making their peace with the Establishment rather than fighting it like Howard Zinn for over 60 years. He is a constant reminder of their own failings.