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Howard Zinn: The Historian as Don Quixote

Howard Zinn has a new book out, which I accidentally stumbled across recently in my local Barnes and Noble. Zinn’s latest book is a cartoon version of history—literally this time. The new book is a graphic adaptation of a chapter from his well-known classic, A People’s History of the United States.  The title of the newest effort is A People’s History of American Empire, as that is the aspect of American history of which Zinn most passionately disapproves just now.

Zinn has managed to publish over 30 books, which are, one might say, variations on a theme—the theme of course being the many crimes and failures of the American experiment. His People’s History alone has already gone through six editions and sold over 1.7 million copies—which may well make it one of the best-selling history books in history. A People’s History has even been made into a movie and Zinn has been the subject of a two-hour video documentary narrated by the actor Matt Damon. Damon even manages to quote whole passages of Zinn on the screen in his role in the movie Good Will Hunting. It would be fair to observe that Zinn has enjoyed considerable fame and fortune from his peddling of history’s lemons. Indeed, his work seems available in remarkable abundance for a scholar whose core thesis is that the history profession conspires to suppress historical scholarship like his.

The latest book is—surprise, surprise—more of the same. It starts out with Zinn’s meditation on the events of 9/11. He goes to a fair bit of trouble to make sure we know he has the proper sentiments about this event—it is tragic, deplorable, etc., etc. He then proceeds to not quite say, but to imply, that in some way America had it coming. Indeed, this Preface on 9/11 is oddly out-of-place on any other construal. Because the rest of the book depicts a whole series of American-empire crimes, starting with the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and moving on through a laundry-list of America’s treacheries, right up to the war in Iraq. Thus, at the end, Zinn wants us to conclude that the events of 9/11 were the chickens coming home to roost. Zinn does not quite say 9/11 was America’s fault, in the way that Ward Churchill did. Zinn is smart enough not to say something so offensive openly, and Ward Churchill was just dumb enough to do it. But they clearly are selling the same narrative.

Throughout the book, the cartoons picture Zinn as a kind of omniscient narrator, so that he can make certain the reader gets just the right indignant lessons he wants them to get. This pose—and the whole tone and content of the book—portray in stark fashion two of the fundamental flaws that characterize Zinn’s corpus of work: the incessant and imbalanced overemphasis on the negative in American history; and the constant insertion of Zinn’s personal views, attitudes and politics into his historical narratives.

Why bother to pay any attention to Zinn’s latest outburst? Surely we all know all we need to know about Zinn’s scholarship. Many have taken him to task here in the pages of the HNN (see Daniel Flynn’s critique for example). But I think we need to remind ourselves from time to time just what Zinn represents in historical scholarship. The answer, it seems to me, is that his work exhibits one of the major forms of postmodern declension which afflicts the history profession.

In my view, the traditional intellectual values of truth and objectivity in historical scholarship are being steadily eroded by the backwash from the passing through our profession of the “postmodern moment.” I typically identify five forms of this erosion: 1) Skeptical Postmodernism; 2) Multicultural Postmodernism; 3) Political Postmodernism; 4) Subjective Postmodernism; and Textualist Postmodernism. 1 Zinn is a practitioner of Political Postmodernism, which views a central purpose of historical scholarship as being to advance one’s political agendas. All of these forms of postmodern declension have one thing in common: they all seek to undermine the intellectual values of truth and objectivity in historical scholarship. Zinn is just one of the more un-subtle practitioners of this type of postmodernism, and hence he is quite useful as a vivid example of the problems it creates. (I have suggested in these pages that even eminent historians like Sean Wilentz are guilty of this same approach to historical scholarship.)

Howard Zinn, if he were not so successful in the very discipline which he so disdains, could be seen as a rather quixotic figure: perpetually in righteous assault against an illiberal establishment that is involved in an endless and largely successful effort to suppress any awareness of Zinn’s leftist critique of the American experience. For decades now, Zinn has been complaining that the history profession has been suppressing any account of the failings of American society and has been relentlessly celebrating the achievements of the rich and powerful.

One problem with Zinn’s point-of-view is that it blinds him to the positive aspects of American history. Zinn cannot concede, for example, any measure of greatness and achievement to an important historical figure like Theodore Roosevelt, because TR did so many things of which Zinn so strongly disapproves. So too with Andrew Jackson, or Woodrow Wilson, or, in fact, just about any president or other prominent figure in American history. When challenged in a radio interview on The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (May 2, 2005) to name a single admirable president in all of American history, he could not do so. So he presents a one-dimensional picture of TR and other prominent historical figures to his students, deceiving himself and them at the same time.

Zinn endlessly complains about the tendency of historians to construct their periodicities around the lives of the presidents. The “Age of Jackson” comes in for special scorn since Jackson was, in Zinn’s view, a terrorist and mass murderer. So rather than Jacksonian democracy as a theme of that era, Zinn would prefer that our histories focus on Jackson’s mistreatment of the Southeastern Indians. Indeed, Zinn continues to claim—in 2005 (on Rehm's show), if you can imagine—that this story of the injustices done to the Indians is missing from most of our history textbooks.

One thinks to ask: has Howard Zinn been paying attention to developments in the history profession for the last thirty years or so, or did he take his snapshot of the world sometime in the 1950s, and waving this fading Polaroid before his own eyes, he is in perpetual rebellion against a past that no longer is present?

Literally grabbing one textbook at random from my bookcase (James Kirby Martin, et. al., America and Its People, 1993) I find it describes the Jacksonian era in the following thematic categories: Expanding the Powers of the Presidency; Clearing the Land of Indians; Sectional Disputes and Nullification; The Bank War; The Jacksonian Court. Of these five categories, the one receiving the most coverage is Clearing the Land of Indians. Next in line on my bookshelf is the Houghton-Mifflin series Major Problems in American History. Its two-volume general series mentions the “Age of Jackson” in one chapter title, but the entire chapter on the period is given over to readings about America’s racism, imperialism, sexism, and mistreatment of the Indians. Next my hand moves to Alan Brinkley’s superb Unfinished Nation, which does commit the sin of titling a chapter “Jacksonian America,” but which divides the period into 16 subsections, none of which is more extensive than the one entitled “The Removal of the Indians.” Next I come to a more popular history textbook, DK publishing’s graphic-laden The Story of America, in which we might expect to find the kind of triumphant celebration of the American experience that Zinn rails against. Instead, we find the era consists of but three topics: Jacksonian Democracy; Nullification; and Jackson’s Indian Policy. And so it goes all along my rows of books. No doubt, my bookcase does not define a stratified random sample, but I defy Zinn to provide an example of a general-interest American history textbook published in the last 20 years or so that fails to emphasize Jackson’s treatment of the Indians as a major theme of this period and his presidency.

Although no longer a boy, Zinn is still perpetually crying wolf. The particular wolf he always sees around every bend is the conservative, censoring, negative-denying, triumphalist history profession that he encountered when doing his graduate work in the 1950s. Professor Zinn seems not to have noticed that he long ago outlived that particular wolf.

Zinn’s antidote to his imagined world of 1950s whiggish history is to deploy deliberately biased historiography that leans everything to the left, so as to somehow counterbalance the tilt to the right that he insists is the still-prevailing mood in the history profession. His bias is not exactly left vs. right in a typical political sense—although Zinn is certainly a leftist. But what Zinn is really peddling is an anti-triumphal account of American history. His complaint is that American history celebrates only the “winners” in the saga of the nation, and so he wants to empower those thought by the establishment to be the “losers” in the story. This empowerment of his preferred clients is the aim and purpose of history as practiced by Howard Zinn and like-minded historians.

Zinn and his collaborators seem to think that giving us a bias in the opposite direction from what they take to be the usual bias somehow counts as being unbiased. Zinn’s A People’s History, and its companion reader Voices of a People’s History, are spectacularly one-sided and outrageously unrepresentative in their presentation of American history. His Voices reader consists only of the voices of “women, workers and non-whites,” as his publisher proudly crows.

Traditionally, historians have assumed an obligation to strive for a fair and balanced account of the past. In a word, we thought we had an obligation to strive for objectivity in our histories. The fact that earlier generations of historians may have failed to honor the ideal of objectivity because they were leaning to the right, does not justify failing still by leaning to the left. The reason Zinn can offer such an audaciously one-sided history is quite simple: like all postmodernists, he assumes objectivity is a meaningless ideal and so the only real question is “whose side are you on?”

Unlike many postmodernists, Zinn and his collaborators make their assumptions explicit. As Zinn has in the past put it: “Objectivity is impossible 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.” The study guide to the Voices anthology put it this way: “By recognizing that all history, including that found in Voices, is selective and emphasizes some stories and some events more than others, we learn that history is really about making people think, ask questions, and demand answers.”

Now we certainly do not want to be opposed to thinking. But asking questions makes sense only in the context of a search for objective truth. What would be the value—to historical scholarship—of asking questions with an aim to crafting answers that are assessed only by how effective they are in empowering our preferred clients? As to demanding answers, surely this is jargon for something that could be said more forthrightly: the telling of history is for the purpose of forcing those in power to change society in ways we as historians desire. That is what Zinn and his collaborators mean by demanding answers from our study of history. This is fundamentally different from the more traditional idea that we study history to find out what happened in the past and why. For Zinn, and like-minded historians, the discipline of history is merely a tool to be used in the pursuit of political cause.

This points to the underlying reason that Zinn still sees dragons in every windmill on every hill: because society has not changed its politics in ways that professor Zinn desires. Since he is, above all else, a political activist, for him the battle can never be won until his politics prevails. Which is well and good: he is perfectly entitled to his opinions about what constitutes desirable political change. The problem comes from his inability to disentangle his role as political activist from his role as historian. It is, indeed, his continual conflation of the two that is the problem here. Because he thinks that his role as historian is one and same with his role as social and political activist, he fails to notice that the history profession has changed, that the historiography he still complains about is long gone. He cannot see this because the politics he complains about is still with us. And it is politics, first last and always, that moves him.

The problem with Zinn’s approach is that it is essentially based on the false premise that the way you combat intellectually biased accounts with which you disagree is by deploying competing biased accounts of your own. As if the idea was that if we just mix oil and vinegar—without any sense of proper proportion—that salad dressing will result. Or perhaps the more apt metaphor is the reminder that a cupful of sewage in a barrel of wine makes everything sewage. Biases are intellectual sewage. We can never achieve balanced or unbiased accounts by peddling alternative cups of sewage.

In insisting that history ought to be pursued with the aim of recovering objective truth, I am not demanding perfection in historians any more than I am expecting to find it anywhere else in life. I am only expecting that historians strive, to the best of their abilities, to provide a fair and balanced account of history, and that they remain open-minded enough to periodically adjust their point-of-view when they notice their failings in this effort. But if one starts with the aim of pushing a political agenda, then neither fairness or balance, nor open-mindedness, nor willingness to correct one’s errors, are ever likely to be in evidence.

There is a huge difference between teaching history “from the bottom up” and teaching it with a political agenda. What is precluded from the kind of scholarship Zinn offers us is the simple possibility of recovering lost histories from the bottom of the story-pile that do not conform to Zinn’s preferred political values. We get in Zinn’s work a highly-selective bottom-up history; a history of those actors whose politics are roughly the same as Zinn’s. This results in problems that may not be immediately apparent to those who share his politics. So to see the trouble, imagine that Newt Gingrich (a former university professor of history, recall) were to give us his reader of American history from the bottom-up. No doubt, it would feature stories of historical actors whose actions somehow rebounded to the greater glory of the Republican Revolution and to such sainted figures as Ronald Reagan. Would Zinn and company find this agreeable? But if this kind of selectivity is fair game for Zinn, it is as well for Gingrich. And then we have is what I say threatens historical scholarship: a political competition among competing narratives the choice of which only involves “whose side are you on?” and the end result of which will inevitably be the triumph of those scholars who have the most votes.

Some middling postmodernists may not really mind this outcome since they tacitly know they presently have more such votes within the academy of professional historians. But votes are fickle things; like intellectual fads, they come and go. Some fine day the middling postmodernists may once again find themselves outnumbered by triumphalist restorationists. Stranger things have happened. In such a world, the clamor of voices—with the outcome determined by who shouts the loudest—suddenly seems less pleasing. This whole idea of historical narratives as competing political viewpoints is deeply corrosive of all that is of value in historical scholarship. Historians, of all people, ought to have enough historical perspective to realize this. 

My point here is almost certain to be misunderstood, so let me say it as clearly as I can: There is nothing wrong with recovering the history of marginalized actors, indeed it is a sanguine undertaking. There is likewise nothing wrong with reconstructing history with a focus on the great men and women who participated in and shaped the great events of our history. Indeed, what an honest and balanced history looks like is one that includes both these types of accounts simultaneously, in their proper proportions. Getting things in their proper proportions means, among other things, not misrepresenting a small achievement as a large one or a large one as being of no importance.

Zinn gives us histories that deliberately exclude the doings of the high and mighty and include only the doings of those who are outside this un-charmed circle. In so doing, Zinn fails in the historian’s obligation to proportionality. He is able to ignore the problem of proportionality by use of a covert argument: he presumes his preferred historical actors were morally right; that truth and justice were on their side. So if their actual role in history was minor, then the course of history is indicted as morally corrupt, and the shortcomings are then not those of his clients but of history itself. Thus Zinn can push aside this morally corrupt standard history to make a place for history’s “rightful” actors. This presumptive core of moral certainty and self-righteousness is the intellectual device Zinn uses to rationalize his highly biased telling of history.

In any case, Don Quixote charges on. We now have a shorthand Zinn-view of history in pictures, for those who may have grown tired of his many words. If you have already read Zinn’s A People’s History, then you don’t need to bother with the new version. On the other hand, if you haven’t read A Peoples History, the cartoon version will do equally well.

1 I develop this thesis at length in my manuscript under preparation, Truth and Objectivity in History: In Defense of Declining Virtues.