Thursday, January 28, 2010

R.I.P. Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn, the passionate political historian who has been a regular topic of controversy here at American Creation, died yesterday from a heart attack at the age of 87. For many, Zinn was the voice of the "little man" who often went ignored by traditional historians. For others, Zinn represented a radical interpretation of history that ignored both the "great man" and shunned the divine. But no matter your persuasion, there can be little doubt that Zinn did add something (good or bad) to American historiography. From the New York Times:

“A People’s History” told an openly left-wing story. Professor Zinn accused Christopher Columbus and other explorers of committing genocide, picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters.

Even liberal historians were uneasy with Professor Zinn, who taught for many years at Boston University. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once said: “I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.”

In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Professor Zinn acknowledged that he was not trying to write an objective history, or a complete one. He called his book a response to traditional works, the first chapter, not the last, of a new kind of history.

“There’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete,” Professor Zinn said. “My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times.”

“A People’s History” had some famous admirers, including the actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The two grew up near Professor Zinn, were family friends and gave the book a plug in their Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.”

Oliver Stone was a fan, as was Bruce Springsteen, whose bleak “Nebraska” album was inspired in part by “A People’s History.” The book was the basis of a 2007 documentary, “Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind,” and even showed up on “The Sopranos,” in the hand of Tony’s son, A.J.

Professor Zinn himself was an impressive-looking man, tall and rugged with wavy hair. An experienced public speaker, he was modest and engaging in person, more interested in persuasion than in confrontation.

33 comments:

Pinky said...

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And, so closes the first chapter of a new kind of history.
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A great job, Professor Zinn!
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Thanks for your work.
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Mark in Spokane said...

I'm not a fan of his work, but his impact was enormous. He also demonstrated the tremendous force that a professional historian can bring to bear via popular writing. There's a large number of people who have been influenced by Zinn, for good or ill. That is a testament to his ability as a writer and his ability to see an opportunity to influence the public through his professional craft. While I think his approach to the American narrative was profoundly flawed, I am suitably awed by his ability to communicate his position to a wide audience.

Brad Hart said...

I agree, Mark. I too was not a big fan of Zinn's work. In my opinion, he was basically the antithesis of David Barton. Extremist history never feels like real history to me. But I will say that Zinn did cause people to think. Sometimes the average American history buff will get too caught up in the "feel good" material and ignore asking the tough questions. Zinn didn't shy from that.

Now, I don't want to be misunderstood here either. I still believe that Zinn's work overreaches in its allegations and falls short in its objectivity. But still, we need fringe historians from time to time to help us center ourselves.

All the best to Zinn's family and friends.

Brian Tubbs said...

My sincere condolences go out to Mr. Zinn's family. And I salute the man's passion and his example that a persistent voice can make a difference.

That said, I cannot agree with Pinky and others who celebrate the man's work as a "historian." Indeed, I cannot even bring myself to call him a historian. He was an activist. That was his right, and we can mourn his loss and celebrate his example of someone who (with a passion, however misguided) took a stand and made a difference (however mixed in its legacy). But we shouldn't celebrate him as a historian, for he was not that.

Brian Tubbs said...

Just posted an article on Zinn's passing at...

http://alturl.com/n43w

jimmiraybob said...

"But we shouldn't celebrate him as a historian, for he was not that."

For the record:

Howard Zinn

• Born in 1922 to immigrant Jewish parents who were poorly educated factory workers.
• Worked in a naval shipyard until enlistment.
• Joined the Army Air Force during World War II to fight fascism and served as a bombardier over Europe.
• After World War II, Zinn attended New York University on the GI Bill, graduating with a B.A. in 1951 and Columbia University, where he earned an M.A. (1952) and Ph.D. in history with a minor in political science (1958).
• His master's thesis examined the Colorado coal strikes of 1914.[9] His doctoral dissertation LaGuardia in Congress was a study of Fiorello LaGuardia's congressional career, and depicted LaGuardia representing "the conscience of the twenties" as LaGuardia fought for public power, the right to strike, and the redistribution of wealth by taxation.[9] "His specific legislative program," Zinn wrote, "was an astonishingly accurate preview of the New Deal." It was published by the Cornell University Press for the American Historical Association. While at Columbia, his professors included Harry Carman, Henry Steele Commager, and David Donald.[9] La Guardia in Congress, won the American Historical Association's Beveridge Prize as the best English-language book on American history.
• He was also a post-doctoral Fellow in East Asian Studies at Harvard University from 1960 to 1961.
• Zinn was Professor of History at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia from 1956 to 1963. Later he was Professor of Political Science, Boston University from 1964 to 1988. He was also Visiting Professor at both the University of Paris and University of Bologna.

Zinn was an activist scholar. His activism was in the area of championing the less privileged and those who he felt to be targets of oppression; the poor, minorities, women. He would describe himself as a radical as would his critics. He worked his entire life for his country and to make a better and more peaceful world for its inhabitants.

Perhaps you’d like to hear some words spoken by historians – here & here.

Yes, he was a historian as well as a compassionate humanitarian - perhaps his greatest sin in the eyes of some.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, and his work was rife with what our Guardians of Truth around here would characterize as Orwellian falsehoods.

R.I.P., anyway. He did what he thought was right, like all "activist scholars."

Mark in Spokane said...

Historians have a perspective. There's nothing wrong with that. The historians I like the most (like Forest McDonald and Gordon Wood) don't shy away from their convictions, but they use their convictions to inform their scholarship, not control it. What I didn't like about Zinn's work is that his ideology directed his work. I never really encountered anything unexpected from Zinn once I realized where he was coming from. That isn't true, in my experience, with McDonald and Wood, among others.

So, I don't object to Zinn's ideology, but rather the fact that in his work ideology tends to guide him, rather than inform him.

That said, he was an incredibly influential writer. I respect him for that. And of course, my condolences to his family at his passing.

bpabbott said...

I think it fair and appropriate to qualify Zinn as an activist first and a historian second.

I consider it unfortunate that his activism took precedence over his history, but I am grateful for his support of civll rights, civil liberties, and anti-war.

I feel a loss for having never met him.

jimmiraybob said...

Being a Truth Guardian is hard work. For instance, Brian Tubbs has a link to a FrontPageMagazine.com article [some might say polemic] by Dan Flynn (Master of Deceit, Tuesday, June 03, 2003). Under the heading Uncooperative Facts Flynn states, "For instance, Zinn claims that 'George Washington was the richest man in America.' He wasn’t, but it makes for a good story."

This was an interesting statement and sounded somewhat familiar. So I looked it up:

Richard Brookheiser - "He ran two start-ups, the army and the presidency, and chaired the most important committee meeting in history, the Constitutional Convention. His agribusiness and real estate portfolio made him America’s richest man. … Men followed him into battle; women longed to dance with him; famous men, almost as great as he was, some of them smarter, did what he told them to do. He was the Founding CEO."

Now, we all know that Mr. Brookheiser is not a garden variety communist, stalinist, marxist. Is Zinn quoting Brookheiser? Is Brookheiser quoting Zinn? Which one's lying? Is it possible that it's historically accurate?

I don't have time to go through more of Flynn's article but it wouldn't surprise me to find additional questionable assertions. It's alos interesting that Flynn berates Zinn's for not using footnotes in the People's History yet make many unreferenced historical claims.

I don't know Zinn, haven't read Zinn, don't really want to be an apologist for Zinn, and likely wouldn't share his views completely. However, fair's fair. At this point a simple RIP without the "but" would have been appropriate and more harmonious to society.

Tom Van Dyke said...

At this point a simple RIP without the "but" would have been appropriate and more harmonious to society.

Nice work, O Guardian of Truth. When you turn your guns on Zinn's numerous errors instead of those of his critics, you'll be in the zone.

This is a history blog, and Zinn's violations of the truth to further his partisan politics must be noted. In fact, he's getting an easy ride.

From Zinn's perspective, history should not be told from the standpoints of generals or presidents, but through that of people who struggle for their rights, who engage in strikes, boycotts, slave rebellions and the like. Its purpose should be to encourage similar behavior today. Indeed, Zinn candidly said that history was not about "understanding the past," but rather, about "changing the future." That statement alone should have disqualified anyone from referring to him as a historian.

...

Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin wrote that Zinn "reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes 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?" As Kazin argues, Zinn always depicted the people as rather stupid, since they always lost as the majority accepted rule by "a new, privileged [and greedy] leadership." As he wisely put it: "Ordinary Americans seem to live [for Zinn] only to fight the right... and inevitably, to be fooled by them."


Rest in Peace; the republic abides, despite him and his politics.

Pinky said...

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Thanks for your posts here, Jimmy Ray.
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This thread is representative of the divide that ideological conservatism has created in America which, I believe, is a clear and present danger to our democracy.
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Too bad the present administration saved capitalism and kept it from going down the tubes. Letting it fail might have taught us a greatly needed lesson about what that radicalism is doing to our otherwise great society.
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Too bad.
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P.S. Whoever comes up with the word verification codes is pretty good. The code for this post is "slyperee".

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bpabbott said...

Re: "This is a history blog, and Zinn's violations of the truth to further his partisan politics must be noted. In fact, he's getting an easy ride."

I think this battle's over. No need to stomp of the guys grave :-(

However, regarding the sentiment;

"This is a history blog, and [...] violations of the truth to further [...] partisan politics must be noted."

My day always looks brighter when I find that Tom and I are in agreement.

Tom, I'm hopeful you'll come to acknowledge that equivalent criticisms of the "Guardians of Truth" from the right are at least understandable and to be expected, if not appropriate and proper.

Pinky said...

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I think it's great that Tom voices his bias. That helps all readers understand where he comes from.
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Nothing wrong with knowing that particular about each one of us.
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I am a progressive regarding politics. I see Positive Liberty as an expression of Private Rights.
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It's good that others know that when they read any comments I might make here. I am not ashamed of my bias toward democratic principles and the value Public Rights over the Private when it comes to public activity.
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There are those here who put their Private Rights ahead of the Public's Right to govern.
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I expect to meet resistance. It has always been so.
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jimmiraybob said...

From the Kazin article you cite:

"He has been active on the left since his youth in the 1930s. During the 1960s, he fought for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam and wrote fine books that sprang directly from those experiences.

and

"THE FACT THAT his text barely mentions either conservatism or Christianity is telling. "

I assume that as a historian Kazin knows the power of omission. When he alludes to an association with the left in the 30s and then jumps ahead to Zinn's activism in the 60s he's painting a misleading picture and leading the reader to a much darker conclusion about the substance of the man. As I'm sure is intended. The reason that I posted the bullet items above is in anticipation of such an argument.

Zinn helped build warships for WWII. He was a bombadier flying combat missions over Germany and Europe, including the use of napalm on a French village. He fricken put his life on the line and killed as a soldier to fight fascist totalitarianism. How left is that? As he freely admits his perspectives on history were shaped by a more mature and informed experience than most undergrads/grads bring to the table. He later taught and lived in a largely dispossessed black society in the South in the 50s and 60s, and fought for civil rights in the tradition laid out by the founders in language such as "We the People" and "All men are created equal."

He was not a fan of the big lie and neither am I.

The fact that Kazin singles out that the text "barely mentions either conservatism or Christianity" is as telling as Zinn's omission. It is obvious that Zinn has pissed a lot of people off by not complying with some unwritten rule that the purpose of history is to create heroes and myths in order to bolster society and government...in a correct way, of course. Yes, he also committed the sin of excluding conservatism and Christianity.

That Zinn kept one foot in the academic white tower and one foot in the civil realm advocating for a people with little to no voice makes him a just target for the ideologue as well as the bonafide historian. He wrote a history that gives a share of the pie to the otherwise ignored. He violated the "scholarly verdict" in Kazin's opinion. In other words, how dare he write politically incorrect history?
Are we living in Soviet Russia? Is it a historian's duty to write for the state?

So yes, he wrote with a "on the left" bias. Big surprise. I believe that Zinn's work came with that caveat - in writing. So, as a history blog, pick a few of his greatest lies about the founding and the founders and hash them out rather than offering blanket condemnation and pointing to polemical and obviously politically-motivated screeds against him.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Tom, I'm hopeful you'll come to acknowledge that equivalent criticisms of the "Guardians of Truth" from the right are at least understandable and to be expected, if not appropriate and proper.

Of course, Ben. David Barton has never got a free ride here.

He fricken put his life on the line and killed as a soldier to fight fascist totalitarianism. How left is that?

You're kidding, right, JRB? He was a self-acknowledged gentleman of the left as well as a polemicist. The problem is, he's used as a textbook in a number of schools. You could look it up.

As for bias, Pinky, again you seem to turn a blind eye to anything resembling your own. As for the public vs private, I guess you haven't learned anything from Barry Shain, or if you have, it's that you want to turn your back on the Founding principles.

Which is fine, but let's just be clear about it.

Pinky said...

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By the way, just so everyone has a better grasp on my bias, Howard Zinn is one of my all time heroes.
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Brian Tubbs said...

Pinky writes: "By the way, just so everyone has a better grasp on my bias, Howard Zinn is one of my all time heroes."

Really? I never would've guessed.

:-)

Brian Tubbs said...

It is altogether fitting and proper to discuss Zinn's legacy, particularly in terms of his contributions to the field of history. This is, after all, a history blog.

That said, I accept that we should offer our critique with a degree of civility and respect, especially given the fact that his family and loved ones are mourning his loss. And I believe I'm doing that.

I also want to say that I respect Zinn's World War II service and his support for civil rights. And, to the extent that his radicalism (as misguided as it was) was driven by compassion, I admire that as well.

Pinky said...
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Pinky said...

Above post removed for typo. Here it is corrected:
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There is an informative obituary for Howard Zinn in the New York Times today.
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You probably could guess that Eugene Debbs is another of my heroes.
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But, above all, Jesus ranks number one.

bpabbott said...

Tom,

I've become quite comfortable our exchanges. I enjoy the constructive side-effects of communicating from different perspectives.

Regarding Barton et al (Gingrich, and Scalia) you *have* appeared to quick to defend them when they are wrong, while quickly condemning Zinn and others who don't share your political perspective.

I use the past tense, because I noticed your comment; "David Barton sucks, so help me God."

I'm surprised and inspired! It would appear that a day that began well will soon end well! :-)

Brian Tubbs said...

It's interesting that relativists often resort to mockingly calling conservatives "Guardians of the Truth" as if that proves something.

That the truth is difficult to discover or that it is often twisted, redefined, misunderstood, etc. doesn't mean the quest for it is a hopeless one or that it does not exist.

As one of MY heroes famously said: "Facts are stubborn things."

And there ARE such things as facts and therefore truths!

jimmiraybob said...

TVD to jimmiraybob above - Nice work, O Guardian of Truth.

TVD, did someone just call you a relativist?

More horrifying, did someone just call me a conservative. :)

Brad Hart said...

Well, I can't say that I am surprised to see this thread end up in a finger-pointing contest where everyone accuses the other of radical partisan views. In fact, I sort of expected it. And guess what? I think Zinn himself would be quite happy to see it happening. Let's face it, Zinn loved controversy. Not the Paris Hilton/Britney Spears type of controversy, but rather the "question what you believe" type controversy. For that, I am appreciative of what Zinn has done. He has caused (like all successful fringe "historians") scores of people to question and revisit many of the traditional ideas and beliefs that have saturated American historiography for decades. And though I don't share his views, I can appreciate his passion. Like Brian stated, I think Zinn should be praised for those things we can all appreciate (i.e. military service, Civil Rights advocacy, his passion, etc.) That is what is most important at a time like this. The partisan back-and-forth is, of course, unavoidable, and I tend to think that Zinn would appreciate it. We can and should debate Zinn's legacy as a historian/activist/etc. What I hope everyone will acknowledge (regardless of your views of Zinn) is that the man did leave his fingerprint on American historiography. Perhaps he will never be put with the likes of a Gordon Wood, Gary Nash, Joseph Ellis, Mark Noll, etc. but that wasn't Zinn's role. Like all fringe historians, Zinn sought to disrupt the equilibrium of traditional American history. And in so doing, he has helped us to take a step back and review where the true happy medium lies. I will never embrace Zinn's views, but that doesn't mean I cannot appreciate his contributions.

Pinky said...

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It's a fact that Goldilocks had big problems with the three bears.
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You are correct about facts being stubborn things, Brian.
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Brian Tubbs said...

My relativist comment is about the debate over truth in general. The "Guardians of Truth" phrase to which I was commenting has been used many times in many contexts. I'm not calling anyone anything or attacking anyone here or anything like that.

I offer that disclaimer in case people in this thread are choosing to take offense at my remarks. None is intended.

Pinky said...

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As long as were' going to talk about the "truth", I also like Sarte.
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Brian Tubbs said...

Pinky, you're about the only person I know who loves an existentalist like Sarte and yet praises Jesus as his number one hero. :-)

Pinky said...

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Maybe that's true about Jesus and Sarte, Brian. I dojn't know.
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Sarte's personal attitude toward Jesus is something I don't recall if I ever knew. But, I know mine.
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And, I can't say that "love" is the correct word to use about my feelings toward Sarte. "Like" is a better word as he does the best job I have ever seen or heard about explaining consciousness.
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Pinky said...
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Pinky said...

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10:45 A.M. E.S.T.; Sunday, January 31, 2010
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Howard Zinn on C-Span Book TV., The Power Governments Cannot Suppress

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