What’s a Guy Like Me Supposed to Do?

I’m torn. I don’t know what progressive historians are supposed to think. On the one hand, whenever conservative politicians try to ban a historian as “anti-American,” it makes us all want to rally around. On the other, though, when that historian has been convicted of peddling “bad history,” it doesn’t seem right to recommend him.

A new celebration of the late Howard Zinn at The Progressive brought all these questions back to mind. To many of my fellow progressives, it seems, Professor Zinn still represents real history, the “people’s” history. Even Matt Damon says so. Academic historians, however, even those with impeccable progressive credentials, have condemned Zinn’s work as schlock.

Most famously, Michael Kazin blasted Zinn’s work as “unworthy of . . . fame and influence.” Kazin pulled no punches. In words calculated to pierce the heart of any historian, Kazin accused Zinn of reducing

the past to a Manichean fable and mak[ing] 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? His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship.

Ouch.

Kazin is not alone. Top historians could offer only a mixed bag of tepid enthusiasm and vague condemnation for Zinn’s legacy.

From Stanford, history-education guru Sam Wineburg came down staunchly against Zinn’s polemic effort. It might make for good leftist locker-room speeches, but Zinn’s book repeated all the terrible flaws of mainstream textbooks, Wineburg argued.

So what are we to make of Howard Zinn’s legacy? Should we encourage young people to read a book that isn’t great history? Because it might open their eyes to bigger truths about American society? Or are progressives supposed to be the side of unvarnished truth instead of self-serving propaganda?

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2 Comments

  1. “Unvarnished truth” in history? You really think there’s such a thing? People assemble the facts they find relevant to ask the questions they want to answer. The answers they want or are able to conceive and the assumptions they start from always make it a circular process. Standards of fairness and accuracy, more and less objective methods of analysis help plausibility but never assure anything like certainty about larger narratives. Stories of any kind simply are not and cannot be true or false in the way facts in them can be. History means asking questions, and leaving them open is probably the most honest approach.

    About Zinn, I don’t see the sense of the criticisms you quoted. Why is any dominant ideology effective at dominating? To presume people subjected to capitalism of some form have bought in and therefore validate it, well that right there is some heavily biased framing.

    Zinn’s APHUS, his young people’s history and graphic novel adaptations are episodic, not grand meta narratives. The explicit goal is to provide a perspective from the standpoint of the populist left. Only reactionary minds read the stories of dissidents as parts of a conspiracy theory. Does anyone claim the histories of industrial robber baron histories read like conspiracies? As you’ve written before, there are real conspiracies and collusion. At any rate, the popular success of one lefty historian is certainly not a bad thing given the type of Whiggish hagiography of great men that is far more common. Zinn is not Williams or Hobsbawm; no one says he is.

    Reply
  2. Paolo McConn

     /  August 26, 2017

    After they tear down all the offensive statues they can get started on burning all problematic books. Zinn’s history might be all that is eventually left. Now that is what I call putting the “progress” in Progressive!

    Reply

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