A group blog to promote discussion, debate and insight into the history, particularly religious, of America's founding. Any observations, questions, or comments relating to the blog's theme are welcomed.
In the 1980s, in the faculty-filled suburbs west of Boston, the historian Howard Zinn was something of a folk hero. The Boston Globe, where Zinn published a column, ran stories of his battles with the dictatorial John Silber, the president of Boston University, who cracked down on unions, censored student protests, and denied pay raises to enemies such as Zinn. When it was learned that the National Labor Relations Board had reinstated service workers who had been fired for striking, or that the courts upheld a student’s right to hang a “divest” banner from his window, a wave of satisfaction would surge from Cambridge to Brookline to Newton to Wellesley. As Silber’s chief nemesis, Zinn—handsome in profile, gentle in manner—made for a winning poster boy for anyone who reviled Silber’s high-handed rule.
As a faculty brat in those years, I was doubly enamored of Zinn after a classmate gave me A People’s History of the United States, his now-famous victims’-eye panorama of the American experience. In my adolescent rebelliousness, I thrilled to Zinn’s deflation of what he presented as the myths of standard-issue history. Do you know that the Declaration of Independence charged King George with fomenting slave rebellions and attacks from “merciless Indian Savages”? That James Polk started a war with Mexico as a pretext for annexing California? That Eugene Debs was jailed for calling World War I a war of conquest and plunder? Perhaps you do, if you are moderately well-read in American history. And if you are very well-read, you also know that these statements themselves are problematic simplifications. But like most sixteen-year-olds, I didn’t know any of this. Mischievously—subversively—A People’s History whispered that everything I had learned in school was a sugar-coated fairy tale, if not a deliberate lie. Now I knew.
What I didn’t realize was that the orthodox version of the American past that Howard Zinn spent his life debunking was by the 1980s no longer quite as hegemonic as Zinn made out. Even my high school history teacher marked Columbus Day by explaining that the celebrated “discoverer” of America had plundered Hispaniola for its gold and that, in acts of barbarism that would later be classified as genocide, Columbus’s men had butchered the native Arawaks, slicing off limbs for sport and turning their scrotums into change-purses. (This last detail stuck vividly in the teenage mind.) That Mr. MacDougall was conversant with radical scholarship such as Zinn’s suggests that much had changed from the days when Zinn himself had imbibed uncritical schoolbook accounts of the American story. True, in the popular books and public ceremonies of the 1980s, you could still find a whitewashed tale of the nation’s past, as you can today; and many cities around the country shielded their charges from such heresies. But as far as historians were concerned, the sacred cows that Howard Zinn was purporting to gore had already been slaughtered many times. As Jon Wiener noted in the Journal of American History, “during the early seventies … of all the changes in the profession, the institutionalization of radical history was the most remarkable.”
The question of politicized scholarship was in fact deeply divisive not just between the “consensus” historians and the New Left historians, but also among the New Left historians themselves. Some of the young radicals, such as Lasch, Weinstein, and Genovese, insisted that the political or social influence of their scholarship would of necessity unfold slowly, incrementally, and through the sinuous, indirect paths of the culture. For all their leftist bona fides, these men agreed with their stodgy forebears that the intellectual had to hew to the highest standards of rigor; it was by the strength of their scholarship that they might revise entrenched beliefs that gave rise to the social conditions that, as a political matter, they decried. Genovese, most vociferously, flatly rejected the siren song of “relevant” history: he, too, hoped at the time for a socialist future, but he believed that it was best served by history that was true to the evidence, valid in its interpretations, and competent in its execution. This rift in the New Left between “scholars” and “activists” eventually led to the collapse of Studies on the Left, as well as to a donnybrook at the meeting of the American Historical Association in 1969, at which Staughton Lynd, a leading activist, ran for association president on an insurgent plank, prompting the cantankerous Genovese—still very much a radical—to bellow from the floor that Lynd and his allies were “totalitarians.”2
Lynd's insurrection sputtered, but his and Zinn’s position wormed its way into the thinking of generations of graduate students, and it is distressingly easy today to find tendentious scholarship that exhibits a Zinn-like habit of judging historical acts and actors by their contemporary utility. As much as radical history contributed invaluable new arguments and perspectives to historical scholarship, it has also left an unhappy legacy of confusing or commingling political and scholarly goals. At its most egregious, this confusion takes the form of polemical potboilers such as Zinn’s or, worse, propagandistic screeds such as Peter Kuznick’s and Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States. (Three decades after Zinn, five decades after William Appleman Williams, it takes chutzpah to claim that a conspiracy-laden tale about America’s unremitting malice has somehow been “untold,” but then one wouldn’t expect Stone’s history to be any more subtle than his movies.)
Such cant will usually be called out by responsible historians, left, right, or center. More troubling is that “the pragmatic fallacy,” as David Hackett Fischer called it, has insinuated itself into a good deal of historical literature even by respected and able historians, at a level deep enough to be nearly invisible. While excellent work is done by self-identified leftists, too much academic work today assumes such dubious premises as (to name but a few) the superiority of socialism to a mixed economy, the inherent malignancy of American intervention abroad, and the signal virtue of the left itself. Franklin Roosevelt’s rescue of capitalism is routinely treated as a disappointment because he did not go all the way to socialism. Truman’s suspicion of Stalin is treated as short-sightedness or war-mongering. Anti-Communism of even the most discerning sort is lumped in with McCarthyism as an expression of mass paranoia. Labor’s mid-century decisions to work with management to secure good wages and benefits are seen as selling out. And too seldom is it acknowledged that throughout its history the left has operated from low motives as well as high ones, and has caused social harm as well as social improvement, and has destroyed as well as created.