The one indisputably valuable thing about A People’s History of the United States is the way it illustrates a melancholy fact about the place of reasoned argument in human affairs. In brief, it occupies a lamentably attenuated place. Placed in opposition to a wish driven by the Zeitgeist (that’s German for “what the New York Times preaches”), reasoned argument doesn’t stand a chance. Item: Soon after A People’s History of the United States was published, the historian Oscar Handlin wrote a devastating review of the book for The American Scholar (which was still a respectable magazine).
“It simply is not true,” Mr. Handlin noted,
that “what Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortez did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.” It simply is not true that the farmers of the Chesapeake colonies in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries avidly desired the importation of black slaves, or that the gap between rich and poor widened in the eighteenth-century colonies. Zinn gulps down as literally true the proven hoax of Polly Baker and the improbable Plough Jogger, and he repeats uncritically the old charge that President Lincoln altered his views to suit his audience. The Geneva assembly of 1954 did not agree on elections in a unified Vietnam; that was simply the hope expressed by the British chairman when the parties concerned could not agree. The United States did not back Batista in 1959; it had ended aid to Cuba and washed its hands of him well before then. “Tet” was not evidence of the unpopularity of the Saigon government, but a resounding rejection of the northern invaders.
And on and on. In any normal world, Zinn would have stolen away in the middle of the night, fled to a mountain fastness in Peru, and taken up llama ranching. In this world, however, he went on to fame and fortune.
Oscar Handlin left Zinn’s “deranged . . . fairy tale” in tatters. But the eye of love continued to regard it as an unspoilt beauty. Hence the 2 million copies, the Amazon ranking, the exuberant grief that taxed the powers of hyperbole commanded by obituarists across the republic as they competed with one another to freight the word “progressive” with ever more awesome pulpit tones.
The obituaries of Howard Zinn make for interesting, if not exactly edifying, reading. Zinn himself, of course, is the hero of the moment, the model “progressive” warrior who spoke truth to power, struggled against the demons of American imperialism, and condoled the weak, the oppressed, the inarticulate. The villain of the story was John Silber, former president of Boston University and for the 24 years Howard Zinn taught there the bane of his existence. In the obituaries, Silber is invariably described as “conservative” or “right-wing.” In fact, he is a liberal in the antique, i.e., the classical mode. While a dean at the University of Texas, Silber labored to abolish segregation. He was an energetic supporter of Head Start, was instrumental in Boston University’s involvement in improving an inner-city school, and has battled tirelessly to further the vocation of the liberal arts and the life of the university as a primary institutional home for that vocation. During his disreputable tenure as a professor at Boston University, Howard Zinn did everything in his power to subvert the university, partly by subordinating its intellectual mandate to trendy political causes, partly by short-circuiting with malicious levity the high seriousness of a liberal-arts education. He would, for example, pass around his classes a bag containing bits of paper imprinted with the letters “A” or “B.” Whichever token a student picked denominated his grade, no matter what work he did or didn’t do.
The point? It wasn’t merely grade inflation. More insidiously, it was an expression of contempt for the entire enterprise of which he was a privileged beneficiary. Contempt, in fact, was Howard Zinn’s leading characteristic. Its primary focus was America, because that was the biggest game in town. But he had plenty left over for the rest of the world. As Oscar Handlin observed in his review, “It would be a mistake . . . to regard Zinn as merely anti-American. Brendan Behan once observed that whoever hated America hated mankind, and hatred of humanity is the dominant tone of Zinn’s book. No other modern country receives a favorable mention. He speaks well of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, but not of the states they created. He lavishes indiscriminate condemnation upon all the works of man — that is, upon civilization, a word he usually encloses in quotation marks.” Howard Zinn has left us. But his repellent ideas — and even more, the contemptuous nihilism that stands behind and fires those ideas — live on.
– Roger Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books, and co-publisher and co-editor of The New Criterion. This essay appears in the February 22, 2010, issue of National Review.