Howard Zinn: Accused of distorting history

SUBHEAD: By intentionally emphasizing facts which support his own deep convictions and suppressing facts which don’t, the historian can, without exactly lying, steer his reader towards an utterly false impression.

Last month, Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, darling of the political Left and arguably America’s most influential living historian, received a literary smackdown in the Sunday Times Book Review by critic Walter Kirn, who panned Zinn’s latest title, A Young People’s History of the United States. Kirn faulted Zinn mainly on methodological grounds:

. . . as Zinn himself points out about his discipline, telling the truth is not Job 1 for historians. Editing and motivating are. The goal is to ‘pick and choose among facts’ so as to ‘shape the ideas and beliefs’ that will ‘help us imagine new possibilities for the future.’

But, as Kirn notes, a theoretical approach in which beliefs lead to facts, rather than vice versa, amounts to a kind of intellectual nihilism and is irreconcilable with Zinn’s overriding desire to take America down a peg:

If the facts can be massaged at will to serve the interests of the masseuses, why even bother with facts at all, since lies would work well, too? Indeed, if all is sophistry and power, why not just let the best man win? So what if he happens to be rich and white?

Predictably, Zinn did not take Kirn’s impertinence lying down. In a letter to the editor a week later, he went after Kirn:

Most historians, including bright 12-year-olds, understand that there is no such thing as a single ‘objective’ truth, that that there are different truths according to the viewpoint of the historian. Kirn is intent on giving a sinister ring to what is common sense.

You often hear this kind of talk among academics, especially those of a postmodern bent. Indeed, the fundamental tenet of postmodernism is the notion that objective truth is an illusion — and, therefore, one “discourse community” (i.e. set of beliefs) is as good as another. But of course, as Kirn suggests, the position cancels itself out. The assertion that objective truth cannot be had is itself an assertion of objective truth . . . and thus, according to postmodernism, no truer than the assertion that objective truth can indeed be had. Far from being “common sense,” as Zinn asserts, the idea of “different truths according to the viewpoint of the historian” is highly counterintuitive. If one historian claims that the Mets won the World Series in 1986, and another denies it, then common sense tells us that one of them is objectively right and one objectively wrong....

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